Schools’ plans under fire for cutting trees to improve parking lots -- Gazette.Net



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New driveways and parking lots at three Prince George’s County schools will put about 50 trees on the chopping block this summer in a plan opposed by many parents and neighbors.

Staff and parents of students at Robert Goddard Montessori and French Immersion schools in Lanham are fighting the removal of 44 mature trees — recently marked with Xs for elimination — while the Glenn Dale Citizens Association is lobbying for a stay on plans at Glenn Dale Elementary School to take out two mature trees and move a smaller memorial tree.

At Bond Mill Elementary School in Laurel, there have been changes to a plan to add much-needed parking spaces by removing trees, said Principal Justin Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald said any trees still taken out under edited plans would be replaced, but he couldn’t give more details.

“It’s not fair to come in and raze the history of [a] school,” Nora Wixon, a citizens association member whose children attended Glenn Dale Elementary, said of the group of trees. “It has been a part of this community for a long time.”

The project at Glenn Dale Elementary will add a small number of parking spaces and will reconfigure how about a dozen buses enter and exit the lot. Officials say the plan will reduce congestion on Glenn Dale Road caused by traffic backups going onto school property and decrease safety concerns caused by buses being crowded into the school’s driveway, said Principal Jacqueline Marshall.

The memorial tree, planted to honor two former students who died, will be moved to another location at Glenn Dale Elementary, Marshall said. The large white oak tree, estimated to be more than 80 years old, in front of the school will be removed and replaced with a shallow drainage area, she said.

Wixon said she would like the trees, particularly the oak in the front of the school, to be preserved, but if that isn’t possible, the school should consider replacing the trees with others planted on campus. Above all, Wixon said community members want a say in the construction plans, a point Marshall acknowledged, though the project was in the works before she became principal last fall.

“It’s about valuing and understanding what’s meaningful to the community... while moving forward,” said Marshall, who indicated she would like to meet with the community to discuss concerns.

Several factors — from the age of the current parking lots and driveways to the number of available handicapped spaces — could prompt replacing or renovating a school’s driveway or parking areas, said Carmen Jackson-Brown, director of the school system’s Capital Improvement Program.

The $475,000 project at the Goddard campus will add 70 parking spaces for a total of 167, said Rupert McCave, the county school system’s CIP officer, and widen the circle around which buses drive to drop off and pick up students.

But the grassy center of the current bus circle, which is used as an outdoor classroom and occasionally for recess, will be deforested and covered with permeable pavement as a stormwater management technique, said Tracy Gross, a teacher and the Green School coordinator at Robert Goddard Montessori.

The Green School designation, which has been bestowed on 17 county public schools by the Maryland Association of Environmental and Outdoor Education, is based on a school’s conservation practices, integration of environmental education in the classroom, and partnerships with the community that bolster environmental education, according to the MAEOE website.

“This plan just doesn’t work for us,” Gross said. “It’s going to make the space inaccessible to kids.”

The school’s families and staff have spent several years raising money to build an outdoor classroom with a stage and benches in the middle of the bus circle in memory of a former principal, Suzanne Johnson, who died in 2009, Gross said. There won’t be a space for the classroom if the trees are removed, she said.

“There’s no question parking is needed... but we’re not willing to sacrifice something so precious to us,” Gross said.

The elimination of the trees in front of the school also will impede the environmental lessons taught by teachers at both the Montessori and French Immersion schools, said Adilah Wutoh-Baylor, the Green Schools coordinator at Robert Goddard French Immersion.

“It sends the wrong message to the children,” said Lori Lynch, a Riverdale Park resident whose son is a rising second-grader at the Montessori school.

Lynch cited the public health and air and water quality benefits of a school environment filled with trees and green space in a letter she wrote petitioning school system officials to change the plans to remove the trees.

Staff and families from Goddard are planning a community discussion about the construction, Gross and Wutoh-Baylor said, and if no changes are made, they plan to rally at the school.

“We have a very attentive community ... and I guarantee they’re going to have some questions we didn’t even think of,” Wutoh-Baylor said. “It’s absolutely vital for us to have an outdoor classroom.”

abrownback@gazette.net