How to determine a crowded school? Carroll County: Court ruling on subdivision shows defects in adequate facilities criteria.

September 22, 1997

A COURT challenge to Carroll County's adequate public facilities criteria, in effect since last year, was inevitable. It should prompt a serious rethinking by the county's planning commission and Board of Commissioners to legally bolster, rather than abandon, the effort to peg new subdivision approvals to local school capacity.

Circuit Court Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. approved a 101-lot development in Westminster, persuaded that simply assigning the new subdivision in a different school zone (closer to those homes) would have met the planning group's school-capacity standards.

And he decided that construction plans for future schools should also be weighed by the planning commission, a position largely adopted by the county Board of Zoning Appeals. This is an area that needs to be better defined, in close concert with the school board.

The judge's ruling reversed two rejections by the commission of the Eden Farms subdivision.

It also hit a more sensitive issue: the unyielding use of portable classrooms to house Carroll pupils. More than 110 portables are in use this year. The basic problem is that developer impact fees are collected by the county to help pay for public services -- mostly schools.

But those fees -- about $4,500 per detached home -- have been spent for portable classrooms to meet the student overload. Thus, developers argue that portables must be counted by the planning body when measuring adequate school capacity. And because the school system shows no sign of reducing reliance on portables, they have become, in effect, a permanent part of the overall capacity of schools.

The implications are enormous. The Board of Education finds that portables are better than overcrowded classrooms in the main building, and they are cheaper than new construction. But Carroll's children are cheated by this circle of reasoning. Efforts to control growth are thwarted. Citizens paying higher taxes for new school construction are betrayed. And while portables increase capacity, shared services within a school such as a library or gym are stretched to the limit. The planning body and school board must tighten definitions of "adequate" school capacity, including portables. And the county must reconsider the use of impact fees to buy portables.

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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