For the first time, the Howard County school board is lobbying county government not to build more homes because it fears there won't be enough space in schools for additional students.
In an extraordinary step late Thursday night, board members voted unanimously to oppose a proposal to build a Jessup townhouse community, fearing county government officials can no longer finance their multimillion-dollar budget requests to build schools to accommodate increasing enrollment.
The school system projects enrollment will increase by 1,600 to 1,800 students each year over the next decade.
The anti-development vote boiled down to a political statement aimed at County Council members, who have indicated that the county can't fund the school system's full budget request this year.
"We can't afford to keep deferring school projects, and we can't sustain consistent underfunding," said Sandra French, school board vice chairwoman.
The board traditionally has taken no positions on planning and zoning issues because county officials have always fully financed school construction, members said.
But the "time has changed," said Susan Cook, board chairwoman. "The council has changed. The county executive has changed. Money has changed."
The board voted to oppose a petition by Blue Stream Limited Partnership to rezone about 33 acres designated for industrial use to residential townhouses, intended as affordable housing. If approved, the change would allow the partnership company to build about 250 townhouses east of Interstate 95 near Port Capital Drive in Jessup.
Almost 100 students are expected to be living in those homes and would attend Deep Run Elementary, Mayfield Woods Middle and Howard High schools. All of those schools are projected to be overcrowded by as much as twice their planned capacities by 2000 if no new schools are built in the area.
In their capital budget requests, school officials propose building four schools, an addition to Howard High and a replacement for Ellicott Mills Middle to alleviate overcrowding. But four of those projects are up in the air because there may not be enough money from the County Council to finance them.
Board member Stephen Bounds said: "I don't want to send the wrong message. The message is not, as far as I'm concerned, to the Planning Board, we disapprove of the growth you want to approve. The message is, if you want to do it, you have to pay the piper."
County officials reacted with surprise to the board's decision to get involved in commercial and zoning issues.
"The Board of Education is getting into setting land-use policy," said Joseph Rutter Jr., the county's planning and zoning director. "It's not what they're elected to do. It's so out of character. I've never heard of a Board of Education taking a position on a zoning case."
County Councilman Darrell Drown said: "It's a bit unusual, but their concerns are the same concerns I have. We don't have enough money to fund their capital budgets. I'm glad to see they're thinking along those lines."
David Carney, a lawyer who represents Blue Stream, said the company had no choice but to request a zoning change: The county Zoning Board approved another company to use an adjacent parcel for mobile homes two years ago, making it nearly impossible to build any type of commercial or industrial centers on the property because of road access.
"We're in a Catch-22," Mr. Carney said.
Mr. Carney belongs to the Columbia law firm of Reese and Carney, which has represented the school board in virtually all matters for 30 years. Mr. Carney was unaware that the school board had made the decision to oppose the rezoning petition and said he would look at whether it poses a conflict of interest for him.
The rezoning petition goes before the Planning Board March 16. The Planning Board makes a recommendation to the Zoning Board.
Even if Blue Stream's zoning change is approved, the county's adequate public facility law prohibits developers from building homes for four years in areas where schools are 20 percent overcrowded. But after four years, developers can begin construction, even if the schools are still crowded.
If no new schools are built in the area, Deep Run is expected to continue to have almost 70 percent more pupils than its original capacity until at least 2000.