Schools overflow debate heats up

Landowners in west claim a building ban would penalize them

January 17, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The growing concerns over crowded classrooms and their effect on development took an unusual turn at a County Council public hearing last night, as western Howard County landowners argued that they are being unfairly penalized.

While parents worry that their children's education is suffering because of crowding and poor enrollment projections that are delaying construction of schools, landowners are upset that the county will shut off development based on a private head count taken by the parents.

Audrey Gaither, a retired teacher whose family roots date to 1902 in Highland, said that if the council votes to close the western county to development in 2003, her relatives would suffer financially.

"We have bills to pay over $50,000," she said, explaining that her family is trying to develop 48 acres into 24 home lots.

E. Alexander Adams, a Columbia lawyer representing several landowners, argued that the council should table two resolutions that would delay development in the western county on the basis of predictions of school crowding.

The school board's use of an enrollment survey compiled by the Pointers Run Elementary PTA "represents an abdication of the Department of Education's public responsibilities," and "sets an extremely dangerous precedent for special interest influencing policy decisions," Adams said in a statement issued before the hearing.

But if the council agrees and delays action, parents said, it will give builders time to begin their developments.

The PTA survey showed that school system projections undercounted the number of students expected at Pointers Run, in River Hill, Columbia's westernmost village, by 303 children. The PTA's numbers were so much higher than school system projections that they pushed the entire western school district over the 115 percent legal limit for crowding.

Adams argued that closing the western county to development starting in 2003 would unfairly hurt the landowners because Pointers Run should be considered part of Columbia, not the rural west.

Several Columbia residents testified that they fear the county might try to redistrict students from rural schools into Columbia to avoid building new schools.

"All schools in Columbia are at, or over, capacity," said June D. Cofield, a Columbia resident.

Courtney Watson, a parent activist from Ellicott City, urged the council to "stay the course" and adopt the new enrollment projections, which, she said, "were long overdue."

Under Howard County's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, development plans may not be approved for construction scheduled in 2003 or later, once an elementary or middle school's enrollment projections show it will be more than 15 percent over capacity by then. During the past year, the crowding threshold under the law was lowered from 20 percent to 15 percent over capacity, and middle schools were added.

Development can resume if the county relieves the crowding, or after a maximum of four years passes.

The law does not halt all building but is designed to stop approvals for future residential communities to give the county time to ease the crowding.

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