Bill aims to ease crowded schools

Housing would be halted in areas where enrollment topped 100% of capacity

Economic impact feared

Guthrie would open debate in council on facilities laws

Harford County

March 02, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie plans to introduce a bill at Tuesday's session designed to reduce crowding in schools. But it is legislation that, opponents say, could knock the local economy for a loop.

Guthrie wants to change the county's Adequate Public Facilities laws so that they would halt housing construction in any area where enrollment in public schools exceeds 100 percent of the school's design capacity.

The current law seeks to halt construction when a school's capacity tops 120 percent.

"Something needs to be done. A lot of our schools are seriously overcrowded," said the Democrat who represents the southern part of the county. "We're putting more and more students in trailer classrooms.

"This has been a problem for the past eight years, but it has been particularly bad the past four years. Things have really gotten out of hand."

Guthrie concedes that it's not going to be legislation that flies through the council untouched, but he thinks he can garner enough support to get at least a version of his bill passed.

"We would welcome the legislation," said Cindy Mumby, a vice president of the Harford County Council of PTAs Inc., which represents all the PTA groups in the county.

"Overcrowding leads to unsafe conditions in schools," she said. "It puts a strain on aging buildings and on teachers.

"You look at the crowded situation at Southampton [Middle School] and if you keep the rules the same, you would be foolish to expect a different outcome," Mumby said.

Donald R. Morrison, a spokesman for Harford County public schools, listed 11 schools where enrollment exceeds 100 percent of the school building's design capacity.

Southampton was rated at 133 percent of capacity last year, before some of its students were shifted this year to other locations.

The redistricting move brought the number down to 106 percent this year. But, Morrison said, enrollment will rise to 137 percent by 2010 if no changes are made.

Homebuilders are adamantly opposed to the bill.

"Guthrie's bill would have a chilling effect on Harford County, not just on homebuilders but the county in general," said Susan Stroud Davies, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

"It will have a detrimental impact on so many businesses," she said. "If you halt housing construction, it will also affect the subcontractors. The plumbers, the electricians, the carpenters won't have the ability to ply their trades."

Davies estimated that such a change in the law could eventually eliminate home construction in about 90 percent of the county.

"It would put a lot of people out of work," Davis said. "It would impact their ability to go to restaurants, to buy clothes, to buy cars, to spend money on anything. It would have a significant impact on the county's tax revenue."

In a letter to Guthrie, schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas expressed her belief "that relief [of crowding] would be provided should development be slowed. Given the demands on local capital funding resources, this would appear to be a benefit to all."

Haas cautioned, however, that growth is needed in any county to provide increased revenue.

Judy Blomquist, president of Friends of Harford, a citizens watchdog group that deals with matters of zoning and land use, said that such legislation "needs to be carefully written."

She acknowledged that she had not seen Guthrie's proposed legislation, but said, "In principle, we support him."

Blomquist said the bill could be the first step in fixing the current APF law, but more important, it would open a dialogue for a comprehensive review of the legislation.

If passed, the bill would not be expected to have any immediate impact on housing construction in the county.

Kathleen Sanner, supervisor of planning and construction for the school system, said that all housing development projects that completed the subdivision approval process would be in the pipeline and construction could not be interrupted.

Peter Gutwald, manager of comprehensive planning for the county, estimated that about 2,500 housing units are in the pipeline. He said the county issued 1,900 housing permits last year. This was slightly higher than the five-year average.

It could take up to five years before housing development is interrupted, said Guthrie. "This is not a perfect world," he added.

Guthrie said he has support among other council members but acknowledged that the bill would likely be amended before being passed.

He said there is support for lowering the Adequate Public Facilities law from 120 percent, "but some are not sure they want it to go to 100."

"We need to have a big discussion of this topic," Mumby said. "The timing is right. We're getting ready now for a review of the county's comprehensive rezoning plan, which will lay the groundwork for growth and where it will occur."

"We are pleased that Mr. Guthrie has begun the charge to review our APF laws," Blomquist said. "It is long overdue."

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