Game of Brinkmanship in Elkridge

June 26, 1995

Whether politically motivated or not, the Howard County school board's decision to oppose an Elkridge housing development on the grounds it would exacerbate school crowding raises a big question. If the problem is overcrowding, why didn't the county's much ballyhooed adequate public facilities legislation put a stop to it? In other words, are the adequate public facilities rules adequate enough?

Answering the question is difficult, in part because the school board has injected politics into the process. In its first-such letter to the county planning board earlier this year, the school board said it opposed a proposal by Blue Stream Partnership Ltd. to build 264 townhouses on a parcel off of U.S. 1 in Elkridge. But the board never cited the adequate public facilities legislation; in fact, the project would not have violated its provisions, which restricts development to available seats in elementary schools.

Why did the board pursue an objection it knew it couldn't win? Because at the time, officials decided they could make a point with county officials in their ongoing battle to get more funds for school construction. If the county didn't come up with the extra dollars, perhaps it could be reminded of potential dire consequences.

The strategy never worked; the money didn't come. And now school officials are being asked to explain themselves publicly. A recommendation by the planning board to allow Blue Stream to develop a scaled-down version of up to 160 units was approved last week. Yet this time the school board was mum, even though some officials still insist the project will create a hardship in Elkridge area schools.

If the county's principal tool for growth control is not working properly, the citizens of Howard are entitled to know. Earlier this year, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker reconvened the commission that drew up the adequate public facilities legislation to review how it was functioning. The result: Except for some minor tinkering, no substantial changes were deemed necessary.

If the school board has legitimate concerns about school overcrowding, it needs to step up to the plate. The adversarial role that has built up between county and school officials should not degenerate into more examples of petty one-upmanship when so much may be at stake.

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