School crowding bill favors builders Baltimore Co. proposal more lenient than laws in 11 other jurisdictions

September 26, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

In its bid to balance development and school crowding, Baltimore County is weighing a bill that would tip the scales more in favor of the building industry than many Maryland counties do.

Eleven counties have laws to rein in development until schools can handle the load of new students, some dating to the early 1970s. Baltimore County is not among them, but Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville Democrat, put a proposal on the table this month.

Homebuilders and other business leaders assailed the proposal yesterday, calling it "draconian."

But compared with laws on the books in other counties, Baltimore County's proposal benefits the building industry in two key ways. It would set a higher threshold for determining when a school is considered crowded. And it would include more mitigating factors to permit development, particularly by letting a builder pay a waiver fee.

"The language in Baltimore County, which holds out the opportunity that by paying cash they could get around the closure, would probably be of interest to the development community," said Marsha McLaughlin, Howard County's deputy director of planning.

"While it gives you a kitty to help build the schools, it doesn't get the school built," McLaughlin said. "In the meantime, you're just continuing to load up the schools."

Still, the concessions are not enough to please builders.

The Home Builders Association of Maryland opposes the proposal, officials said yesterday.

"We think it's going to hurt the homebuilding industry severely," said Tom Ballentine, director of governmental affairs. "Putting a moratorium in place just announces to the world that we aren't competent enough to deal with what little growth we still have in the county."

Although the proposal is less severe than laws in other counties, Ballentine said, "I feel strongly Baltimore County has different circumstances and needs its own solution."

The Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce's board of directors voted yesterday to oppose the proposal.

Stuart D. Kaplow, the chamber's vice chairman, said the waiver fee would be more of a burden than a boon.

The chamber board "feels that the bill as drafted is draconian," Kaplow said. "At best, the proposal creates a new tax. At worst, we create an entire business moratorium."

The day of decision is near. On Nov. 1, a moratorium on construction around crowded elementary schools expires.

Kamenetz said he sought a balance between builders and the PTA, which calls the proposal long overdue.

Asked to evaluate the proposal, officials in most other counties with similar laws said it was more lenient than their laws.

"On balance, I'd say the building industry would find Baltimore County more acceptable to their thinking," said James Shaw, the Frederick County director of planning. "We have a tighter rein and we have less mitigating options."

Frederick County does not allow developers to pay a waiver fee if schools are crowded. An ad hoc committee recently studied the issue and "put it on the side burner," Shaw said.

Philip Rovang, Carroll County's director of planning and development, said the only mitigating circumstance there is if a construction project to handle the incoming students is already planned.

"Our standards are intended to be black and white," Rovang said. "We have not deviated from those standards, even though the developers have come in and said, 'These are the mitigating circumstances, and you ought to approve our subdivision.' "

In Harford County, "we don't have anything allowing the developer to pay a fee in lieu of school construction," said Pete Gutwald, chief of transportation and land use. "The philosophy in Harford County is, when the schools start to exceed capacity and we don't have planned improvements, we hold up development."

Kamenetz's proposal, which the council is to vote on next month, specifies mitigating factors, but it is more stringent than the moratorium in some respects.

The law would apply to all schools, not just elementary schools. And it would cover elementary schools exceeding 115 percent of state capacity standards; the moratorium set the threshold at 120 percent.

The 120 percent standard would apply to middle and high schools under the proposal.

The county's proposed standards are in line with those of some other counties, but most set the threshold for crowding at 110, 105 or 100 percent, according to the Maryland Office of Planning.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, the law kicks in when schools exceed 100 percent of capacity. Otherwise, Anne Arundel provides for waiver fees and mitigating factors similar to Baltimore County's.

In some ways, Baltimore County's proposal mirrors the law in Prince George's County, where the threshold for crowding is 120 percent of capacity and developers may pay a fee or build a school addition to address crowding.

jTC But that law does not allow the developer to donate a school site as a mitigating factor, which Baltimore County's proposal would, said John Funk, supervisor of the Prince George's public facilities planning section. He called Baltimore County's proposal little more liberal."

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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