Panel weighs growth rules

Committee discusses enrollment estimates, school capacity caps

June 18, 1999|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

A group of Howard County civic activists, business leaders and county officials were working early today to strengthen a 1992 law that tries to match development to the construction of roads and schools.

Members of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance Committee began meeting at 7 p.m. yesterday in a fifth-floor conference room of the Columbia Gateway Building and spent hours debating several proposals to prevent crowding in Howard's elementary schools.

The ordinance regulates growth by limiting the number of new houses according to the capacity of schools and roads. Since it took effect, the county has granted fewer than 2,000 building permits annually for homes.

The 17-member committee is to forward a list of recommendations to County Executive James N. Robey by July 12.

Last night, the panel vigorously discussed two proposals related to the capacity of schools.

One proposal would require education officials to release bi-annually 10-year estimates of which elementary schools could be over capacity and should be opened or closed to new students. Educators are currently required to submit the estimate once a year, usually after Sept. 30 when a count of school population is more accurate than when the academic year begins.

Several panel members said twice-yearly estimates would give school and planning officials as accurate figures as possible to gauge the impact of new development on local schools.

"I think there is [an advantage] because it gives you enough opportunity to catch a problem," said Courtney Watson, a mother of three at Ilchester Elementary School. "What harm is there to doing this?"

The harm, said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., county planning director, is that builders with property within certain school districts might try to rush development plans through the approvals process.

"They will hoard all the property out there and go with it," Rutter said. "It'll be `While it's open, get it now.'"

The committee also debated the merits of reducing the cap for elementary school enrollments.

The ordinance authorizes county officials to delay approval of proposed residential developments around schools that have enrollments more than 20 percent over capacity.

By that measure, five elementary schools in 2003 will be closed to new students.

Maurice Kalin, an associate superintendent of schools, suggested lowering the cap to 15 percent over capacity to lower the student-teacher ratio and improve the learning environment. If the cap was reduced to 15 percent, five more schools would have to be closed to new students in 2003.

In the northeastern part of the county, three of the six elementary schools are expected to be closed to new students by 2002. A fourth school would be closed to new students three years later.

The County Council this month placed a moratorium on development in the northeast for four years after education officials determined that the area's six elementary schools would be more than 600 students over their 3,619 capacity by 2002. The moratorium takes effect July 7.

This is not the first time that the county has imposed a moratorium to prevent crowding in schools. One was in effect in the southeastern part of the county from 1992 to 1995 until two new elementary schools opened.

Pub Date: 6/18/99

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