Motherhood and moratoriums

June 13, 1995

America. Apple pie. Mom. And don't forget building moratoriums.

Particularly in communities that have been rattled by growth and change, some folks put construction bans on the same lofty perch of honor with mom, pies from scratch and Uncle Sam. In Baltimore County, the administration of County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger is opposed to extending the county's five-year ban against development in neighborhoods where elementary schools are 20 percent above capacity. Yet the administration says it won't fight a recent proposal by County Council Chairman Vincent Gardina to keep the ban going. As a top Ruppersberger aide said, that would be "like saying you're against motherhood."

Agreed, motherhood is hard to knock. But that doesn't mean some moms aren't less than perfect. Which brings us back to building moratoriums. Legislators may be fond of trumpeting them, but there is proof that they can be unnecessary, even harmful.

Unnecessary because projections of school attendance figures have often turned out to be too high; because 14 of the 18 Baltimore County schools deemed overcrowded are in communities where no new housing construction is planned; because districts with overcrowded schools have been exempted from the ban once they were scheduled to receive capital improvements.

As for the harm moratoriums can do, ask Howard County. In 1987, then-County Executive Elizabeth Bobo pushed through a sweeping building ban just as a construction boom peaked. The resulting loss of revenue was a blow to Howard. Ms. Bobo was unseated by Charles Ecker, who was then forced by the revenue shortfall and the recession to lay off county employees, the first in the area to receive pink slips.

Baltimore County might not be poised for a construction boom, but its officials can't afford to ignore that good housing stock is a powerful economic development tool -- and that the lack of such housing is one reason middle-class families are settling elsewhere. Do the county's political leaders wish to lock away such a potential tool by extending a ban that might be unwarranted?

Mr. Gardina is right to urge an open discussion of this issue before the current moratorium expires June 30. But the other council members and the Ruppersberger administration must keep in mind that, sacrosanct as motherhood is, questionable building moratoriums are entirely fair game.

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