Balto. County development gets approval Plan had been blocked due to crowded school.

December 31, 1991|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff

The Baltimore County Board of Appeals has approved construction of a southwestern county housing development that had been held up by an emergency law banning new homes near badly overcrowded elementary schools. It was the second such approval this month.

The board reversed a decision by then-County Attorney Arnold Jablon prohibiting construction of the 12-home Westchester Woods development on 5.2 acres off Westchester Road near Oella Avenue in far southwestern Baltimore County.

The board ruled that the county bureaucracy delayed the Westchester Woods development beyond the October 1990 deadline for projects to be under way to escape the new law's provisions. On that basis, the board ruled, the project should go ahead.

The law prohibits new construction within the district boundaries of elementary schools that are at least 20 percent over capacity.

Nearby Hillcrest Elementary School, in the 1500 block of Frederick Road, has 747 students this year, with some housed in four portable classroom trailers outside the building.

Its rated capacity is 510 students, meaning the school has nearly 50 percent more youngsters than it was designed for. James Kraft, the county schools planner, said an eight-room addition is planned for Hillcrest to bring its capacity to 724, but there's no money for it yet.

County Councilwoman Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, said the crowding would not have occurred if the county had not converted the nearby Westchester Elementary School into Catonsville Middle School about 10 years ago, when student populations were declining.

The middle school building on Old Frederick Road is close to the Westchester development site. The former junior high building it replaced was converted to other county uses.

Now Manley wants to convert an old school annex in the Oella community to classrooms to reduce the number of children at Hillcrest, but Kraft said that old stone building is too dilapidated to use and too expensive to restore.

Overall, 39 county elementary schools are operating over capacity, and 14 of those are more than 20 percent overcrowded, county officials say. The county's school population has been growing by 3,000 to 4,000 a year for the last several years.

County Executive Roger B. Hayden has appointed a committee to find ways to deal with the problem, which is expected to get much worse by the end of the decade.

County planners expect the school population to swell from its current level of 90,000 to as much 120,000 by the year 2,000.

School officials don't want to increase class sizes, while elected officials have so far resisted the idea of raising taxes to pay for new schools.

The interim building law, which controls development in crowded school areas, passed in July 1990 but remains in force only until June 30, 1992.

Two weeks ago, the Board of Appeals reversed Jablon on a proposed nine-home development near crowded Prettyboy Elementary School in the northern county.

The board acted on similar grounds -- ruling that the county had delayed the developer beyond the cut-off date for projects to be grandfathered under the new law.

In the Westchester case, the board decided that a county public works department requests for a change in the development's roadways delayed the approval process through no fault of the developer, Westchester Property Partnership.

The developers complained that they already had invested $90,000 in the project by the time they learned the county would not approve its construction. The board ruled that the county attorney's decision that the development did not qualify under the new law's grandfathering clause was "arbitrary and capricious."

Prettyboy has 428 students in a school designed for 320, but an addition to the building is planned.

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