Panel vote supports growth lull

Building slowdown near middle schools gets citizen backing

Letter heads to Robey

3 council members predicting approval of a crowding test

Howard County

July 20, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

New-home development should be delayed around crowded Howard County's middle schools as it is around elementary schools, a citizens committee studying the issue decided last night.

Three of the five County Council members who attended the meeting predicted afterward that a law concerning middle schools would be approved.

The committee will submit a letter to County Executive James N. Robey next month, said chairman David Berson.

Last night, the committee's 14-0 vote, with one abstention, represented the third time the panel had voted on the issue in the past year. The first two times, members rejected including middle schools in the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

Some committee members said a law concerning middle schools will not be needed. Others said such a measure wouldn't do much good.

Still, the vote was unanimous. County Solicitor Barbara Cook abstained.

County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. warned that the public might think a law would prevent all crowding in middle schools.

"It won't," he said. "The schools will be overcrowded if [enrollment] projections are incorrect. It will do nothing to relieve overcrowding in a two- to three-year period."

Maurice Kalin, associate county school superintendent for planning, said the middle schools test isn't needed because his growth projections don't show crowding in the next few years, when middle school enrollments are expected to peak.

Developer Jim Schulte said that holding up construction of "a few hundred units" won't really make much difference.

None of that dissuaded advocates.

"I think this is a good insurance policy. It's the prudent and responsible thing to do," said John W. Taylor, a slow-growth advocate.

"It's a safety net," said Courtney Watson, a community activist who has noted that Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince Georges, Calvert and Washington counties include middle and high schools in their public facilities laws.

"We can't legislate every possibility, but I think we're doing the best we can," said William Waft, another community activist and county Board of Appeals member.

Last night's vote means a new law likely will follow, since a County Council majority of three members attended the meeting in the county's Gateway building. They said they support a middle school test in the law.

"I think we may get five votes [in the County Council]," said Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican. Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, agreed.

Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, another advocate of a middle schools test, also attended the meeting.

The difficult and emotional issue symbolizes the fast-growing county's struggle to find a balance between development that some residents think is coming too fast, and builders who say they are being made scapegoats for the school-crowding problem.

Crowding in middle schools is expected to peak in 2007, and some residents want protections before that happens, while some officials have urged waiting to see if problems occur before taking action.

The key to last night's action is the new way the group recommended limiting development - by county planning districts instead of using school districts.

The current law limits new development around elementary schools are over 115 percent of capacity, using school district boundaries.

But because middle school districts are larger, cover several portions of elementary school districts and sometimes change boundary lines for redistricting, critics argued that including middle schools under the 8-year-old anti-crowding law is impractical.

By using county planning districts, which don't change their boundaries, the law would regulate developers based on the adequacy of all public facilities within that planning district.

The committee voted to recommend using planning districts instead of school districts at its June 21 meeting.

Last night, the committee also agreed to ask Robey to reconvene the group late next year to consider whether class size reductions ordered by the school board should affect the rated capacity of school buildings.

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