In an unusual meeting marked by technical and legislative delays, the Howard County Council postponed annual action last night on charts that control the pace of development around crowded county schools, approved a lease for a halfway house for drug abusers and killed or tabled several other controversial measures.
The meeting began a half-hour late because of last-minute confusion over the school/development charts. Partial failure of the council's sound and cable television system also contributed to the delay.
Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, speculated that Sunday night's storms may have damaged the system, and finally gave up waiting - urging spectators to move to the front of the room so they could hear.
The major action was postponing a vote on the school charts measure. The five council members unanimously chose a new chart of enrollment projections as an amendment to the bill, a change that will require discussion at a July 21 public hearing, and a vote could take place July 30.
"It's kind of weird how we got here, but we're all here," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, explaining the council's decision on the charts.
How to predict enrollments and control school crowding while not unduly disrupting development has bedeviled Howard officials for years.
Lately, county leaders seem to have reached a rough consensus that the web of laws designed 11 years ago to deal with the problem - known as the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance - isn't doing the job. The law stops development planning three years in advance when enrollment projections show an elementary or middle school would exceed 115 percent of capacity by then. The county then has up to four years to fix the problem by building new classrooms or changing attendance boundaries.
The law has been criticized from all sides because of unreliable enrollment predictions. The state budget crisis and its effect on school construction funding and the state requirement for all-day kindergarten by 2007 have brought added pressure.
"All the things we have done have still not made APFO work. We need to figure out a different way," Merdon said.
In other action, the council approved in a 3-2 vote a lease that could run as long as 10 years for 6,000 square feet of space at Taylor Manor Hospital in Ellicott City for a halfway house for drug abusers - a major recommendation of a long study of the county's drug abuse problems and treatment needs.
Merdon and fellow Republican Allan H. Kittleman voted against the lease. Merdon says he supports the concept of the program but felt the lease was too long and might obligate future governments to continue the program after the two years of operating funding provided for it has expired.
The council also killed a previously tabled senior housing bill by refusing 3-2 - along party lines - to revive it.
The bill, sponsored by Merdon, would have increased from 20 to 50 the minimum number of housing units in the zoning category called "age-restricted adult housing." Guzzone said the administration is working to resolve the congestion and design problems with these small developments for senior citizens.
On two other issues - one involving homebuilding, and the other use of a private road to the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge - the council voted to table the bills.
The development bill attempts to rein in one-home projects on lots broken from larger tracts of land that now enjoy an exemption from legal restrictions on development because of school crowding or numerical limits on housing construction.
The other tabled bill would allow retreat centers such as Belmont to seek permission under the zoning laws to be used for "limited social assemblies." A negotiated agreement was not completed and signed between residents who live near Belmont's 14-foot-wide private road and the American Chemical Society, which owns the center.