Straitjacket for county development Anne Arundel County: Student capacity shouldn't dictate development strategy.

April 24, 1996

HOW PROMINENT a role should school capacity play in determing Anne Arundel's development policy? County Executive John G. County says he is willing to allow schools to operate as much as 120 percent of capacity before stopping nearby residential construction. The county Board of Education has made a counterproposal of setting the limit at 100 percent of capacity. Unless there is some compromise, the county executive and school board are headed for another nasty showdown.

School capacity should be an component in shaping the county's development policy. But as long as there are as many as 14,000 vacant classrooms throughout the county, it should not be the determining factor. If every school in Anne Arundel were bursting with students, the board would have a point in trying to limit development in certain areas. Since there is adequate space in the schools overall, planners have to focus on other considerations such as maximizing use of existing infrastructure, preserving and redeveloping existing communities, curbing sprawl and protecting open space.

School populations fluctuate. The age distribution of a community's population rather than the number of houses will determine whether its schools are crowded or empty. A neighborhood crowded with children 20 years ago may be home to empty nesters today. But in a few years, the current residents may be gone, replaced by a new influx of young families.

The school board's proposal treats school-age population as though it is static and never changes over time. Limiting development in those areas where schools are currently at capacity may, over time, only tend to exacerbate the misallocation of classrooms in the county. Forcing developers to build in those areas where schools are currently under capacity may result in even more empty classrooms in a few short years as the school-age children grow up and none move in to take their place. In the meantime, areas with schools now filled to capacity may be less crowded in a few years and in need of more children.

Projecting student populations isn't an exact science. As long as it isn't, county officials would be making a mistake to base future residential development approvals on an school capacity rule that hasn't worked in the past.

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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