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The St. Mary’s County Board of Education voted in May to work toward purchasing 281 acres of land in Mechanicsville for at least two new schools. However, the property does not currently have the correct zoning to get any state money to go toward building new schools.

The property at Route 5 and Flora Corner Road is in the Huntersville Rural Legacy Area, which includes 3,590 acres of land preserved from development.

The state does not prohibit a school from being built in a rural legacy area, but the state won’t provide money to build a school if it is not within what is labeled a priority funding area, said Sue Veith, environmental planner with the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management. “That’s going to have to be resolved,” she said.

The land the school system is trying to buy was once in the Mechanicsville Town Center, a priority funding area, but was removed a few years ago during an update of the St. Mary’s County Comprehensive Plan. The town center is just across Route 5 from the farm.

“We’re doing some investigation as to what the implications are of the rural legacy area,” said Jeff Jackman, senior planner with land use and growth management.

While a school is not outright prohibited from a rural legacy area, “it wasn’t the intent of the rural legacy area,” Veith said.

The St. Mary’s County commissioners removed the farmland from the Mechanicsville Town Center, but the property still shows up as a priority funding area somehow with the state.

“That too needs some clarification,” Jackman said of its priority funding status. “It’s a long story. We’re looking into answering these questions and we don’t really have a definitive answer now.”

“All of this is still preliminary,” Jack Russell (D), president of the county commissioners, said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s a lot of question marks. You don’t in the end want to buy a pig in the poke — something you can’t use.”

“There’s few properties in the county that we can buy the size for a high school that aren’t going to have zoning-type issues,” Brad Clements, deputy superintendent of St. Mary’s schools and operations, said Tuesday. Finding the 75 to 125 acres of usable land in growth areas, where the state prefers them, is “extremely difficult,” he said.

If approvals for the Mechanicsville site can’t be worked out, the school system won’t buy it. Included with the option to purchase is a nine-month feasibility study. “Hopefully we can work together for the best of the county. I’ve got nine months to figure it out,” Clements said. “Every site has its challenges.”

The school system has $4.6 million budgeted to buy land for new schools. A new high school won’t be needed on the Mechanicsville property for at least six years, he said, and a new elementary school there wouldn’t be needed for 15 to 20 years.

The Roache family, which recently put a 147-acre nearby farm into preservation, wrote to the county commissioners last week in opposition of the school site in Mechanicsville. “Development of this parcel will stifle the growth of a rural legacy area and encourage more strip development along the Rt. 5 corridor,” a letter from Dr. John W. Roache, J. Barry Roache and Wanda Valiante said.

“This farm contains the best cropland in this area. The soils here have excellent productive capability. It is important to keep this type of land in production if possible. Situations like this point to the need for some type of stop-gap measure to help prevent land like this from being taken out of production until preservation funds can assist a buyer from the agricultural community to make use of such important resource. Farmers should not have to compete with local government for the purchase of high-quality farmland,” they wrote.

They also noted there are steep slopes to the rear of the farmland that feed into the Lockes Run tributary of the Patuxent River. “Preservation of watershed is needed in this area; not the creation of impervious surface,” the letter said.

“In summary, everyone supports the board of education. Their job is of the utmost importance to all members of our community. Nonetheless, we must also show a true commitment to the preservation of farmland and watershed,” they wrote.

jbabcock@somdnews.com