Don't let growth go unchecked there's too much at stake

May 31, 1992|By Tom Twombly

I would like all the citizens in the county to do me a favor over the next three months. I want you to drive around and see what growth is going on and what potential for growth exists.

I know I'm asking a lot, but you have much at stake in this issue since it affects you much more than you think.

The areas for potential growth reach from the southernmost tip of the county north to Annapolis. Other areas are Crofton through Gambrills, Odenton, Millersville, Fort Meade and Pasadena.

Unfortunately, the county has not recovered from the problems of the 1980s. This is a time when we can make a difference in what the county will look like by 2000.

I will try to describe some of what I, as one of your school board members, see happening. The urban sprawl of Washington and Prince George's County is now finding its way into Anne Arundel.

The entire Route 3 corridor appears to be becoming an amorphous blob, a densely populated area extending from Washington to Baltimore. We'll have wall-to-wall concrete and asphalt and building on top of building. Traffic will be snarled in all directions. The quality of life for the citizens of this county will erode because infrastructure is not in place to accommodate this massive growth. Schools will become more overcrowded and new buildings will be required.

Currently, there are approximately 60 portable classrooms in the county. By September, we'll be up to about 80. By the end of December we'll be right around 100. An educated guess is that by the year 1995 we'll have approximately 300. If construction continues at its current pace, we could have as many as 500 by the year 2000.

Our children will spend their time in school being herded like cattle. When they grow up to be our leaders, they'll treat us and the next generation accordingly. This is a dangerous chain of events to put into motion.

One of the most important tasks of leadership is to have a common-sense vision of the future. Many of those open-space areas set aside in the 1980s sure look good today. Imagine all of those as developments.

Rapidly growing areas will demand resources -- new schools, landfills or incinerators, fire stations, police stations, roads and water and sewer lines. The infrastructure necessary to accommodate this kind of growth is not in place, and spending on such items will have to compete with other county projects.

Long-range planning for controlled growth is necessary. The school system has to be an equal partner in this process because so much is at stake -- children suffer as schools become overcrowded and dilapidated.

For more than 12 years, the county has spent little on school construction and renovation. The county construction budget for this period has been approximately $100 million a year. The average share of construction money for the school system was less than $15 million a year.

If this trend continues, the school system will become a maintenance nightmare, with most of the 120 schools in the system in fair-to-poor condition. New schools will be built because growth and developers will demand them; Shipley's Choice Elementary School is a prime example. The old schools will get lost in the shuffle.

Overall, our high schools are in good shape, with a few minor exceptions. About five middle schools need some immediate attention. But the elementary schools, overall, are in desperate shape. And the situation at that level could get much worse as new schools are built and money goes into construction rather than repair and renovation of older schools.

The school board gets approximately 55 percent of the county operation budget, but less than 15 percent of its construction (capital) budget. The school system has been shortchanged for too long.

This year's budget for school construction projects was more than $30 million, including the money recently released for North County High School. We're going to need $30 million for each year through the year 2000. Remember, many capital items for the school system -- including underground storage tanks and asbestos removal -- are federally mandated because of health and safety standards. Because of this, only 60 percent of the school construction budget is allocated for planning, new construction or renovation.

A moratorium on growth in certain locations should be put in place before the end of this year. The adequate facilities laws and ordinances should be tightened. The sites for schools should be negotiated up front and building permits would be contingent upon builders providing the complete infrastructure needed for schools -- sidewalks, roads, school sites, and impact fees to finance construction. Construction interests should not supersede the interests of our children.

County government must require the builders donate sufficient lands for elementary, middle, and high schools. Anne Arundel County does not have to sell itself to its building contractors.

Further, no growth should be allowed in any area where a school is 110 percent of capacity. We should work to create situations where the county wins because of quality development and the builders win because they get to build in a county that is strategically located in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

This county is still a fine place to live. But several years of unchecked growth has destroyed the delicate balance of nature unique to Anne Arundel County. We still have some rural areas, but they are rapidly disappearing. In other spots, urban sprawl is out of control.

I often recall Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken." In that poem, choices once made cannot be changed. These choices made all the difference. I hope we can persuade county officials to choose a path of controlled and restrictive growth.

That will make all the difference!

Tom Twombly is a member of the Anne Arundel County school board.

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