A bitter, year-long battle over plans to convert an abandoned Montgomery County school into housing for single women and children was tentatively resolved last week after a key committee of the county council approved a second, less controversial facility site.
"The need for single-parent housing is tremendous and unmet. This is a crucial first step toward providing it," said council member David Scull, chairman of the committee.
Crossways Community Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Potomac, proposed more than a year ago to transform the old Belt Junior High School in Wheaton into a counseling center and 103 apartments for women who find themselves getting divorced, separated or suddenly widowed.
The proposal, the first for using a closed school for single-parent apartments, was hotly opposed by residents of the largely-middle-class neighborhood surrounding the site. Hundreds of angry homeowners signed petitions and charged that the proposed multifamily dwelling would disrupt their "closely knit" single-family community.
Protesters disrupted hearings with catcalls and boos, and complained that the project would turn their neighborhood into a "slum."
After months of stiff opposition, the Crossways group last fall began considering a second abandoned building, formerly Pleasant View Elementary School, as an alternate site for the facility.
The two schools, which are less than two miles apart, were closed within the past few years by county officials because of declining student enrollments.
The three-member council committee last week unanimously endorsed single-parent housing as an acceptable use for the surplus Pleasant View building.
The county planning board has approved both sites, and the full, seven-member council, which already has endorsed Belt, is expected to also approve the committee's recommendation on Pleasant View.
A final decision on how the schools will be used rests with County Executive Charles Gilchrist, who has not indicated a preference. The county's Department of Housing and Community Development, however, supports the Pleasant View site.
The elementary school proposal is facing almost no citizen opposition, according to council staffers. A citizens group representing residents near the former school voted to endorse a plan for senior citizen housing on the abandoned site two years ago.
To appease citizen concerns, the county has offered to retain title to the property and to sublease it to Crossways Community. The school is at one end of Upton Drive and is near a central business district and public transportation.
The 58,000-square-foot building could be converted into 50 apartments, about half the number originally proposed for Belt, which is 92,000 square feet in size and is in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
A zoning change passed by the council last year increased the number of uses to which surplus county schools could be dedicated. Housing was included for the first time and, since then, three schools have been converted to apartments for the elderly, according to Scull.
The single-parent proposal is patterned after a similar program in Denver. The local group has proposed offering child care and job counseling to women, who would be eligible to live in an apartment for up to two years.