Sojourner-Douglass College has decided to exercise a lease option to buy its new campus in Edgewater, a move designed to help end a contentious lawsuit over how the property should be used, college officials said this week.
On Sept. 9, the college quietly notified the property's owner, Tom Schubert, of its wish to buy the six-acre site south of Annapolis. This week the college took the next step, asking Schubert to begin the appraisal process.
This latest move comes after John Rhoads, president of the London Towne Property Owners Association, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, told The Washington Post in a report published Monday that the association did not object to the college's presence there. The big concern, he said, was what the developer who owns the land would do with it once the college's lease expires.
"If London Towne is really only concerned about the developer owning it, then they have no reason to be concerned, because we will own it," campus director Charlestine Fairley said.
Property owner Schubert said in a letter back to the college: "It has always been my hope that the college some day would become owner of its Edgewater campus."
Told of the pending transaction, Rhoads sounded a note of optimism.
"If that happens, that would be the best news that I could hear, but I can't comment on it until I see it," he said.
London Towne's attorney, Joseph Devlin, did not return phone calls for this story. The association represents about 2,000 homeowners, Rhoads said.
A major stumbling block to the sale could be the lawsuit itself. Fairley said the college cannot finalize a loan until the court case is either dropped or resolved.
At the center of the lawsuit is a restrictive covenant that states the land must remain undeveloped "except in conjunction with the Anne Arundel County Board of Education."
The college had thought it met that requirement by working with the school board on various educational programs. It leases classroom space to Kipp Harbor Academy, one of the county's new charter schools.
A Circuit Court judge sided with the college, allowing construction of the one-building campus to proceed. But in July, just days after construction of the $2.5 million, 16,000-square-foot structure was complete, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that the covenant had been violated because the school board had not been involved in the planning and design of the building itself.
Now college officials await a follow-up ruling that will decide the building's fate. The landowners who filed the lawsuit have asked that the building be razed.
The college, named for abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, was established in Baltimore in the 1970s as a night and weekend educational alternative for working students. The college has about 1,200 students at five campuses in Maryland and a campus in the Bahamas. The Annapolis branch opened in 1993, operating through the years in two donated rooms in a nonprofit agency, and in space in a church and a veterinary hospital.
In 2002, it signed a deal with local developer Schubert to build a new Annapolis-Southern Maryland campus on six acres of property the college had selected at the intersection of Routes 2 and 214 in Edgewater. The new campus can serve up to 500 students, more than double its current enrollment.
Almost immediately, some residents raised a litany of objections. Fliers appeared, warning residents about an alternative school the school board was considering for students with disciplinary problems.
The flier asserted that 83 percent of students at an unrelated county alternative school had criminal records, including "sexual offenses, weapons related crimes, drug crimes, assaults."
Supporters of the college suspected the complaints against the college, which serves a predominantly black student body, were rooted in race. That belief has been spurred by hate literature that has occasionally circulated around the area.
Backers of the lawsuit say race has never been part of the issue.
"That's some nasty business there, and we don't know where [those pamphlets] came from," Rhoads said. "We certainly don't believe they came from our community, because we consider ourselves a pretty diverse community."
The new campus officially opened July 18.