Committee revisits public facilities ordinance

Panel ponders whether law limits growth enough

March 05, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance committee met last night to consider whether changes are needed to the regulation that attempts to ensure schools and roads are ready for population booms that come with new developments.

APFO, passed in 1992, delays home building for a maximum of nearly four years in areas where crowding is projected in the elementary or middle schools. Developers must also pay for improvements to nearby roads that would not be able to handle extra houses.

But the law has been widely criticized in recent months as an inadequate response to development because school leaders are still redistricting frequently - always unpopular with parents - and this year are asking for half again as much money to build schools.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Howard edition Wednesday about an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance committee meeting misidentified a speaker who commented on figures showing that existing homes are contributing to school crowding more than new homes. The speaker was James M. Irvin, director of public works in Howard County. The Sun regrets the error

Committee members, who range from school leaders to developers to slow-growth advocates, meet only when asked to do so. County Executive James N. Robey, who reconvened the panel, said last year that APFO is working better, but still has problems.

Last night, the panel, which has been given no specific directive, concluded that change is worth debating. Members thought of a range of issues and possible revisions, agreeing to discuss them in two weeks.

They also got a sobering statistic from David C. Drown, the man in charge of enrollment projections: 57 percent of the school system's growth during the past two years came from old houses, not new development. APFO has no control over resales.

"What we got tonight is really telling," said Gary J. Arthur, director of recreation and parks. "It's not necessarily new development - it's resales that are creating the problem."

Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City county councilman who has expressed frustration with the ordinance, thinks it makes sense for committee members to examine the impact of families moving into existing houses.

"How does that impact APFO, and is APFO still applicable, knowing that more kids are coming from existing homes than new homes?" said Merdon, who attended the meeting but is not on the panel.

The committee last recommended changes in 2000, later approved by the County Council, that added middle schools to the mix and redefined crowding as 15 percent over capacity instead of 20 percent.

"It does a reasonably good job given the trade-offs, but if conditions have changed, we'll need to decide if changes need to be made," said David W. Berson, the committee's chairman, who was out of town last night.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county's interim planning director and a committee member, said residents have complained about an APFO exemption that allows people to carve off one lot without waiting in line for space in the schools. She said the intent was to allow someone to build a house for a son or daughter, but instead developers have been using the exception to get a "freebie."

She said this rule should to be reconsidered because the first house and the rest of the subdivision that comes later often are oddly put together, aggravating neighbors.

"It's really skewing the design of projects," McLaughlin said.

APFO works three years ahead - using the number of children projected to be at each school then - because that is approximately how long it takes to build a house, from planning to occupancy permit.

Courtney Watson, an APFO committee member who joined the school board in December, said it is difficult to properly judge the effectiveness of the most recent changes to the law because not quite three years has passed.

"It may also be a case of too little, too late," Watson said. "Much of the growth was able to get through the APFO law because of capacity caps that were too high and loopholes regarding what we called `assumed redistricting.' "

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