Homebuilders came up against county residents opposed to development last night as the Anne Arundel County Council considered a measure that would virtually halt the approval of new residential subdivisions in areas where schools are overcrowded.
The bill, introduced at the request of County Executive John G. Gary, would bring county planning policy in line with school board policy by allowing planning officials to consider the capacity of individual elementary, middle or high schools, instead of looking at the capacity of an entire feeder system of schools.
Before a shift in policy last year, county planners would approve new residential subdivisions if, for example, the nearest elementary school was crowded but a school elsewhere in the same feeder system had empty seats. That practice essentially relied on the school board to approve redistricting.
But, for the most part, the school board has avoided shuffling students and busing them, sometimes long distances, to schools that have empty seats.
"There's no way that we can force them to redistrict," said County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe. "All this legislation does is stop the bleeding."
But some 40 members and supporters of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland were at last night's council hearing, wearing stickers saying "30-98 'NO,' " urging the council to vote down the bill.
"I'm a small guy; I've got three lots going through," said Chris Maio of Edgewater. He is appealing a county Planning and Code Enforcement decision that would not allow him to subdivide his newly purchased property because Davidsonville Elementary School can't handle the 1.5 extra students the development would generate.
With enrollments creeping up in already crowded schools, planning officials decided last year to stop looking at capacity in a whole feeder system, and clamped down on new subdivisions proposed for areas where a particular elementary, middle or high school was crowded. But the County Board of Appeals ruled in several cases that the Department of Planning and Code Enforcement was not following it's own policy.
So Gary's bill seeks to make the definition for a school "service area" clear in the law.
It would be a step in the right direction to slow crowding, according to Weems W. Duvall Jr., lawyer for South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development Inc. (SACReD).
"I thought it was a very clear piece of simple legislation," said Duvall. "I don't really care who introduced it."
SACReD is suing Gary over another part of his policy of approving subdivisions that would bring school enrollments to 115 percent and 120 percent of their capacity.
Though some council members viewed the bill as a campaign ploy by Gary, legislators should still address school capacity and the issuing of capacity waivers for subdivisions, Weems said.
Several council members said they opposed the bill.
"The tail is now wagging the dog," said Councilman William C. Mulford II.
The bill would allow the school board to determine where growth occurs, based on the available school seats, instead of letting the county government set growth policy, he said.
"I'm not willing to cede that authority," Mulford said.
Councilwoman Diane R. Evans accused the Gary administration of creating the crowding crisis with a liberal policy of approving subdivisions. Evans, a Republican, is challenging Gary in the race for county executive.
County school officials use a mathematical formula to determine how many students a proposed subdivision would produce, and only look at the capacity of the schools those students would be assigned to based on geographic boundaries. School officials do not consider whether another school in the same feeder system would have room for the new students, according to Thomas W. Rhoades, director of program planning for the school system.
The council had not voted on the subdivision bill as of 9: 45 p.m.
Pub Date: 4/07/98