Parent group takes Gary to court Development policy inundates schools, members charge

Classes now 'very large'

Building allowed where enrollment is 20% over capacity

August 23, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien and Scott Wilson | Dennis O'Brien and Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

A parent group filed suit yesterday against County Executive John G. Gary, claiming that the adminstration's controversial development policies will swamp South County schools.

South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development Inc. is seeking an order in Anne Arundel Circuit Court to nullify a county policy that allows development in communities where school enrollments exceed capacity by as much as 20 percent.

Since it was announced June 30, the policy has been sharply criticized by education advocates and environmentalists as favoring developers over students. But Gary, a Republican, has stood by the policy used by the county's Department of Planning and Code Enforcement as a guideline for approving new housing subdivisions.

The policy allows county planners to grant waivers permitting new residential building in neighborhoods where elementary school enrollments already surpass state-required capacity limits by as much as 15 percent. Building could also continue in communities with high schools that are 20 percent more crowded than state guidelines allow.

"We've done it this way in the past, but we've never set an upper limit," said Lisa Ritter, Gary's spokeswoman. "We wanted to tell people when enough is enough."

The suit alleges that Gary exceeded his authority by creating what is essentially a new law without County Council approval. It also claims that he overreached by setting school policy without approval from the Board of Education.

"The [county] charter requires the executive to enforce existing laws of the state, not to unilaterally create new laws," the suit says.

Opponents says the Gary's directive is going to increase class sizes and force the school board to redistrict.

"We already have classes that are very, very large, and this is going to increase them," said Dorothy D. Chaney, a plaintiff and former school board member.

Problems far-reaching

The suit also alleges that Gary's policy will create traffic problems and depress real estate prices.

"As the quality of education diminishes, so do plaintiff's property values," the suit says.

Ritter said Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have similar policies. She said the county's Adequate Facilities Law requires developers to pay for any school improvements needed to accommodate new students. Gary's capacity ceiling adds teeth to that law, she said.

"It's a policy that we believe is well within the authority of the Planning and Code Enforcement department's authority," Ritter said. "My question is how have neighboring counties managed to implement these policies for years" if the Anne Arundel guidelines are illegal.

She said the intent of the suit is to halt Baldwin's Choice, a 158-home development being built on 477 acres on the Shady Side Peninsula. The parent group has publicly opposed the development, vowing to fight it on environmental grounds.

School enrollment figures show that three of the four elementary schools near the development -- all of which send students to Southern Middle School -- are crowded.

Projected enrollments

Projected enrollments for September are for 662 students at Lothian, 8.7 percent above capacity; 581 students at Shady Side, 3.6 percent above capacity; and 427 students at Tracey's, 32.6 percent above capacity.

Only Deale Elementary School, which recently expanded, is expected to be within state guidelines, with 185 students and a capacity for 337.

Baldwin's Choice is expected to add more than 100 students to South County schools.

Chaney said the suit is intended to curb Gary's power over schools. She said county laws need reworking. As they are written, she said, they give Gary final approval over residential development in neighborhoods where schools are crowded.

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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