Montgomery County officials, despite stiff opposition from neighboring residents, are moving ahead with plans to convert an abandoned elementary school in Wheaton into housing for single women and their children.
County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, County Council President Michael L. Gudis and others are supporting the planned conversion of the old Pleasant View Elementary School into single-parent apartments, a move that has provoked bitter protest from area residents. A ceremonial groundbreaking for the facility is planned tomorrow at Armory Place in Silver Spring.
County housing officials in August selected Crossways Community, a nonprofit organization based in Rockville, to operate the 50-apartment facility and provide counseling for single parents, primarily women who are divorced, separated or suddenly widowed.
Last month, however, a coalition of Wheaton and nearby Kensington residents filed suit against county officials challenging the legality of procedures that the county used when it designated the abandoned school, located at 3015 Upton Dr., to be used for single-parent apartments.
The suit, filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court against Gilchrist and the seven county council members, represents the second challenge to the county's two-year-old zoning law dealing with setting new uses for public buildings.
Last summer, residents living near the old Belt Junior High School, also in Wheaton, filed suit against county officials, claiming that the county violated state laws when it designated the 92,000-square-foot school building to be used for about 100 senior-citizen apartments. Neither suit has been settled.
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 suit brought by Pleasant View-area residents maintains that it was unlawful for the county council to give Gilchrist the authority to designate the new use. It asserts that only the council can make reuse zoning decisions.
Opponents also contend that the council should have given written notice to all property owners in the Pleasant View area before it held a public hearing on the proposed reuse of the school last April.
Moreover, the suit claims that Montgomery County Planning Board member Mable Granke, who is president of Crossways Community, acted inappropriately when, in a letter to the council before the April hearing, she endorsed the conversion of Pleasant View into single-parent apartments.
In an interview this week, Granke said that she had removed herself from any decision-making process by the planning board on the reuse of Pleasant View and was acting as an individual and president of Crossways when she made the endorsement.
County housing and community development officials praised the Pleasant View project, saying that it would help meet the needs of between 3,500 and 4,000 applicants currently seeking assisted housing in Montgomery.
According to 1980 Census figures, the number of single-parent families in Montgomery rose from 10,508 in 1970 to 18,591 in 1980. About 90 percent of all single-parent families are headed by women, figures show.
"What we're trying to do here is to have a facility that's available quickly to people in this situation, to some people already on the waiting list, but, hopefully, also to people to whom this happens suddenly," said Richard Ferrara, Montgomery's housing and community development director.
"Ever since this project got some publicity we have been literally flooded with phone calls from people hoping that the project would be available soon," Ferrara said.
To appease citizen concerns, the county has offered to retain title to the Pleasant View property and to sublease it to Crossways Community. The school is near a central business district and public transportation.
While a citizens group representing residents near Pleasant View voted two years ago to endorse a plan for senior-citizen housing on the abandoned site, county housing officials have said that the 58,000-square-foot school building is too small to provide all the services the elderly would need.
A zoning change passed by the council nearly two years ago increased the number of ways surplus county schools could be used. Housing was included for the first time and, since then, three schools have been converted to apartments for the elderly, according to county officials.
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.