Panel delays vote on schools

Council to consider proposal to limit home construction

`Want to do what's right'

Crowded facilities prompted introduction of amendments

January 26, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's struggle to prevent school crowding has so far focused on a law that limits development once elementary school enrollments grow too big.

But, after getting the County Council to postpone until March a vote on tightening the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, Councilman Guy J. Guzzone is exploring whether the law can be used to limit development first, to prevent school crowding.

His two fellow freshmen council members -- Republicans Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon -- are pushing an amendment that would add middle schools to the 1992 law, which covers only elementary schools.

Guzzone's vote could decide the issue on the five-member council because the two other Democrats -- C. Vernon Gray and Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, both from Columbia -- back the county's proposed changes and oppose adding middle schools to the bill.

County Executive James N. Robey's changes, recommended by a citizens' committee he appointed last spring, would lower the crowding threshold for imposing development limits from 20 percent over capacity to 15 percent. In addition, no more than 300 new homes would be allowed in any district at capacity.

Gray argued that because all council members favor those changes, the bill should be voted on now. "We can vote on this legislation. If he [Guzzone] wants an amendment, he can bring it forth later," Gray said. The kind of structural changes Republicans and Guzzone are discussing might take more months of study to achieve, Gray said.

But Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, wants to see if the problem can be approached from another angle besides adding middle schools -- by using housing allocations in the law to limit development first.

The allocations haven't been a factor since the law was enacted in 1992 because homes have been built at a much slower pace -- an average 2,000 a year -- than the 2,500 a year set as a goal in the 1990 General Plan. If the number of homes allowed is lowered, however, that could change. In an ideal world, Lorsung said, the current work to write a new 10-year General Plan would be completed before revising the school crowding law.

"Adjusting the number of units seems to be cleaner" than adding middle schools to the law, Guzzone said. The council had been scheduled to vote on the measure Feb. 7.

Guzzone requested the delay to give him time to explore that option, he said. He has scheduled a session with Joseph W. Rutter Jr., county planning director, to better understand the county's development process.

The key is the link between the school crowding law and development goals set in the county's 10-year General Plan. The school law, according to Rutter, contains housing allocations per school district, based on goals set in the General Plan. In theory, if those goals are adjusted lower, affecting the housing numbers in the school law, it might help prevent crowding.

Then again, it might not. Guzzone says he has no illusions about how difficult and complicated the task is.

"I'm not sure that any amount of tinkering with the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance is going to get it to work in a way that myself and citizens are really happy with the outcome," he said, because some things are beyond the law's control.

The school board, for example, controls where school district lines are drawn and which schools are open for children who live outside the district boundaries.

If enrollments grow too large -- as they are now in the northeastern county around Ellicott City -- and the board doesn't redistrict children to less crowded schools, the law would be less effective.

"The northeast has plenty of [housing] allocations, but schools are over capacity because of redistricting," Rutter said.

Delaying a council vote won't hurt, Rutter said, because the other changes proposed by Robey won't take effect until July 1.

Merdon, who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge, approves of Guzzone's approach. He's willing to delay a vote, he and Kittleman said, as long as Guzzone is still considering their middle school amendment.

"I think we need to re-examine the number of allocations we're setting as our goal. I'm certainly in no rush to get something through. I want to do what's right," he said.

Noting that the county has laws that affect either school enrollments or development, he said, "You you want to have all your tools working in unison. We don't have that right now. There are too many hands in the pot."

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