Panel set to review county's development rules

Facilities law works well, one member says

April 23, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With hundreds of new homes rising around historic Ellicott City, young mothers like Courtney Watson worry that Howard County's laws regulating development don't prevent crowded classrooms.

Farther south, in Savage, William B. Waff is worried, too -- about how many more cars will whiz past his home when a new village-style development starts rising nearby, despite a law that tries to match development to the capacity of roads and schools.

But Jim Eacker, who helped draft the county's adequate public facilities ordinance in 1992, said the law "has worked extraordinarily well."

All three people -- and their very different views -- have been chosen for a committee of 17 charged with examining the 7-year-old law to see if it needs revision. The group includes a core of seven people who served on the draft committee -- including four county officials who can provide practical guidance through the maze of interlocking laws and plans that regulate growth in the county.

"The rules have to be practical," said county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., a committee member. "Do I need 87 new people to handle this?" he asked rhetorically about any proposed change.

And there are other hidden pitfalls. Lowering the standard for school crowding from the current level of 120 percent, for example, could cut off state school construction money based on that formula, Rutter said, while the law has to mesh with the county's broad general plan, too.

County Executive James N. Robey, elected, like most of the County Council last year, after campaigning against unrestricted growth, appointed the committee to fulfill that promise. He has also appointed a 34-member panel to work on the next 10-year General Plan. That group will meet May 5 for the first time.

Widely varying views

With such widely varying views, it's not clear what, if any, changes the adequate facilities group will propose after its weekly meetings start May 6.

But committee Chairman David W. Berson, 44, a Columbia father of three and a former Columbia Council member, said he wants to produce a report by July and is hopeful a consensus can be reached.

"I believe it is possible to do that. We may not make everybody happy, because consensus is very hard to come by.

`An open mind'

Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., developer of the proposed North Laurel community that concerns Waff, said it is "premature" to think about specific changes to the law. But he added, "I don't think it's harmful to review. Everybody, hopefully, goes into it with an open mind."

Watson has proposals ready, based on the school crowding she sees developing in her area. Instead of allowing any number of new developments to win approval while a school edges closer to the 120 percent level, for example, she wants to allocate building permits by the number of empty seats -- cutting off approvals when the threshold is reached.

Overcrowding guaranteed

She points to Worthington Elementary as an example. Capacity is rated at 569 pupils, but up to 682 can be enrolled before development could be cut off. Meanwhile, she said, plans for more than 600 homes have won county approval, guaranteeing that the school eventually will be overcrowded.

"I think it's a good law, but I think it needs to be changed," Watson said.

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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