It's lunchtime at Sojourner-Douglass College's newest campus, south of Annapolis, but the only students here are fifth-graders. The college's 200-plus students attend classes in the evening, so this fall it began leasing unused classrooms in the daytime to KIPP Harbor Academy, one of the county's new public charter schools.
To college officials, the arrangement is a perfect example of how the college is working collaboratively with the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, which oversees the charter school. School board officials agree.
But days after the college celebrated the opening of its $2.5 million, single-building campus in July, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that the building violates a covenant that states the property must remain undeveloped except for "educational facilities in conjunction with the Anne Arundel County Board of Education." Overturning a lower-court opinion, the three-judge panel stated that the covenant was violated because the school board was not involved in the plan and design of the building.
Now college officials nervously await a follow-up ruling that will decide the building's fate. The landowners who filed the lawsuit have asked that the building razed.
"That would be a tremendous loss to the school, both with regard to the fiscal implications as well as our ability to serve that community," said Charles W. Simmons, president of the historically black college, which has about 1,200 students at five campuses in Maryland and a campus in the Bahamas.
The college had operated quietly in Annapolis since 1993 but looked south of the city to Edgewood as it outgrew office space it rented on Solomons Island Road. The unimposing, one-story building sits discreetly behind a bank of towering ash trees, hidden from view of the busy intersection of routes 2 and 214. Across the street is the South River Colony shopping center.
Adjoining the six-acre parcel is Central Elementary School, and down Route 214 are Central Middle and South River High schools.
Supporters say the college blends in perfectly, except for one thing: The students are mostly black; the homeowners are mostly white. That has added a racial dimension to the controversy, although opponents say race has never played a role.
What no one seems certain of is whether the opposition represents the majority of nearby residents or a persistent few.
John Yannone, the only individual to sign on to the lawsuit, along with the London Towne Property Owners Association, lives in a second home in Florida, he said. His Edgewater home in the South River Colony subdivision near the campus is for sale, although he said he plans to buy another home in the area.
Another South Colony resident sent out a flier that thanked residents for their support in opposing the campus. The flier also requested $50 donations to "complete this legal battle" and "preserve our community." The mailer's author did not return phone calls for comment.
The college, meanwhile, has received letters from other nearby residents who support the campus, leading officials to believe the opposition is small in number.
"I would think it is," said Charlestine Fairley, director of the Edgewood campus. "But as you know, a small group of people can do a lot of damage."
Support for the campus has been vastly more visible. Last month, a town hall-style meeting intended to be an open forum between opponents and school officials turned into a gospel-style revival, with more than 100 supporters singing the praises of the college and detractors, if there were any in the crowd, not uttering a word.
Then, on Thursday, more than 250 supporters protested in Annapolis outside the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building, where the immediate fate of the campus soon will be decided. Among those gathered were the city's mayor, an alderman and more than a dozen clergy members, white and black, from across the county.
John Rhoads, president of the London Towne Property Owners Association, said the association's fight is not against the college but against the developer, Tom Schubert, who leases the property to the school. "What happens when the lease expires and he no longer has to deal with Sojourner?" Rhoads asked. "It can become anything he wants it to become. This is not about Sojourner. That's a college, and we don't have a problem with that."
"That's new to me," Schubert said, when told he was the focus of the opposition. Fairley said the school found the land and asked Schubert, who had been the school's landlord at its old location, to buy it and develop it for use by the college. The lease term is for 15 years with options to extend by another 15.
Those terms would allow the college to stay on the land after the covenant expires in August 2018, opening up the land for commercial development. The lease also has an option to buy.