Harford growth poses a peril for schools

Official wants limits on development tightened

April 27, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

If Harford County halted the preliminary approval for all new housing tomorrow, developers could still build another 6,066 residential units, according the Department of Planning and Zoning.

That's how many residential units have been given preliminary approval by the department as of Jan. 31 and would be unaffected by a proposed change in a county law linking housing development to school overcrowding.

School officials say housing is outpacing school construction, and they fear an already critical situation will get worse.

"They tell me they have more than 6,000 homes in the pipeline - that's a huge number," said County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat who represents the southern part of the county. "What in the hell is that going to do to our school system?" he asked rhetorically. "It ain't going to be good."

The additional housing affects more than schools, according to Guthrie. "It puts more stress on our roads and our emergency services. The Police Department is overburdened."

Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican who represents Bel Air, said it was difficult to comment on the impact of the potential construction without knowing where the houses might be built.

He said that if the houses are being built in the Edgewood area, where the schools are less crowded and the roads can handle additional traffic, it would be less a problem than in other parts of the county.

"But something needs to be adjusted," he said of a system that allows for more than 500 new homes to be built in the Fallston area where the middle school is struggling to handle more than its share of pupils.

Guthrie has proposed legislation that would change the county's Adequate Public Facilities law as it relates to schools. His proposal would halt new housing construction in a school district when the school's capacity exceeds 100 percent. The current law shuts down the county's housing approval process when a school's enrollment reaches 120 percent of capacity.

The legislation is on hold while a task force studies its possible impact on the county's economy.

Guthrie insists that the current law is not working.

According to enrollment figures compiled by the county school system, Harford Middle School is operating at nearly 130 percent capacity.

At the same time, 516 homes are in the pipeline waiting to be built in the Fallston Middle School district, according to figures released by Pete Gutwald, manager of comprehensive planning at the county Department of Planning and Zoning.

"The situation is critical," said Joseph Licata, assistant superintendent for school operations. He said that the 6,066 homes in the pipeline would generate an estimated 3,400 new students. "This is on top of the normal growth from homes already in the county."

"We have got to do something now," Licata said. "If everything else stops today except for these 3,400 students, it would put many schools over 100 percent of capacity and [over]120 percent."

Licata drew on the words of George Lisby, a former school administrator and school board member, when he said: "If our school system was in the hospital, it would be in critical care."

"That is why it is so critical that we get planning approval for the new middle and high school in the Bel Air area," said Licata.

He continued: "Our schools are not keeping pace with growth in the county. This has got to be addressed. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to address.

"The best solution is for somebody to step up to the plate and find a way to fund additional capacity in our schools."

Referring to the discussion surrounding Guthrie's proposed change in the Adequate Public Facilities law, Cassilly said: "This is a debate that we should have had four years ago.

"Something needs to change," he added, "the status quo is not acceptable."

Homebuilders say a moratorium on housing construction would have a detrimental impact on the county's economy and on many businesses.

They say it will impact a wide variety of construction subcontractors including carpenters, plumbers, electricians, landscapers, roofers and companies that put siding on houses.

Cindy Mumby, a vice president of Harford County Council of PTAs, said crowded schools impair students' ability to learn.

She said crowding also compromises safety and security in schools.

"With over 6,000 homes in the pipeline," she said, "it is easy to see that unless we change the rules of the game, the outlook for our school will be no different."

The challenge, according to Mumby, is to find a way to balance school construction with the county's growth rate. "We don't want to put the developers out of business," she said. "Our operating budget depends on them and the business activity they generate.

"We have to find a way to keep the county's economy strong while serving the needs of children in the schools. That would be a win-win situation for both sides," she added.

Deb Merlock, another PTA vice president, said schools that are over capacity put additional stress on students moving between classes in crowded hallways and tax the cafeteria. "That's why kids start eating lunch at 10 a.m. and [the last shift doesn't] finish until 1 or 1:30."

Valerie Twanmoh, who represents Friends of Harford on the Adequate Public Facilities task force, said the 6,000 homes in the pipeline represents about four years of construction activity based on the trend on building permits issued in recent years. Friends of Harford is a grass-roots group that monitors growth and other quality-of-life issues in the county.

"The housing industry is not going to be devastated," she said. "They have enough work on the books to last four years."

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