Bill would tie development,school space Balto. Co. councilman suggests 3-year freeze if classes are crowded

Ruppersberger backs idea

House builders could get waivers under proposal

September 16, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After six years of controversy over the effects that home construction has on school crowding, the Baltimore County Council tonight will get a proposal that would permanently regulate development around schools.

The bill -- sponsored by Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat -- would freeze development for three years around any county school that exceeds new limits for crowding. But it would give builders four ways to obtain a waiver to build sooner.

The concept has won approval from County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III and from a community activist, though business leaders are waiting to see the proposal in writing.

School crowding has bedeviled county officials, developers and community activists since 1990, when a "temporary" moratorium on development around crowded elementary schools was approved.

Since then, business leaders have argued that moratoriums hurt the county and don't solve the problem, while community groups and councilmen say a law is needed to keep crowding from getting worse.

The county has been caught in an economic crunch between demands for expensive new classrooms to meet growing enrollment and the slow growth of revenue.

Kamenetz, the bill's sole sponsor, said the last-minute addition of $23 million to the county's school construction bond referendum last month and controversy over the moratorium are signs that a long-term solution is needed -- something all sides seem to agree on.

Kamenetz said the bill would keep pressure on the county to provide classrooms quickly enough to prevent delays in developments needed to keep the county's economy growing.

"I want to get the ball rolling," he said, stressing that his bill has not been reviewed by other councilmen and is intended only as a starting point for debate in the next month.

Kamenetz said the county has had two task forces and "endless discussion" on ways to deal with school crowding. The county's "temporary" 6-year-old moratorium on building around elementary schools that are more than 20 percent over capacity will expire Nov. 1, and the council wants something to replace it.

"I believe there is a consensus on the council," Kamenetz said, for a permanent law guaranteeing adequate classroom seats without shutting down development in large areas.

His proposal would cover all schools, not just elementaries, and would lower the threshold of crowding to 15 percent over capacity for elementary schools.

Developers could qualify for waivers if they volunteered to build school additions, donated land for school sites, paid a per-home waiver fee or persuaded school officials to move enough students to reduce enrollment at an affected school.

One key provision of the bill may be how it defines "capacity." If the county raises its current average class size of 24, as has been suggested occasionally, a freeze wouldn't take effect as quickly. However, school officials have opposed increasing the average class size.

The concept of the bill won praise from the county executive's office and from a community activist. The bill was not expected to be ready in written form until today.

Ruppersberger supports the concept, his spokesman Michael H. Davis says, although he believes that the proposed $90 million school bond issue, plus state school construction money, should solve the school crowding problem for the next few years.

"Who can predict what will happen down the road?" Davis said. "Long term, you need something."

Ruppersberger was unavailable for comment Friday because he underwent surgery on his foot.

Northern Baltimore County community leader Richard McQuaid -- a frequent Ruppersberger critic -- supports the bill's intention, with reservations.

"It will help. The concept is great," he said, quickly adding that there are too many loopholes for developers to suit him.

Builders and the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce were more reserved, however, despite a private briefing Friday by Kamenetz.

"The need for school facilities planning is evident," chamber spokesman Stuart Kaplow said. "Whether or not this legislation is the way depends on what it says."

Thomas Ballantine, legislative chairman for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, was even more cautious, declining to make any assessment until the group can study the bill in writing.

Pub Date: 9/16/96

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