Balto. County Council tables bill to cut off building near full schools

Some on panel feared measure would prove ineffective in critical areas

March 16, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Amid questions about the legislation's effectiveness, Baltimore County councilmen voted last night to table a bill designed to cut off development near crowded schools.

Several county residents testified last week in favor of the bill, which would have cut off development near schools that are 5 percent over capacity, a drop from the current law's 15 percent standard. But councilmen said yesterday that they have grown skeptical of the bill, which was intended to tackle two of the biggest complaints in the county: excessive residential development and school crowding.

"I think it's a feel-good, but I'm not sure how much it actually accomplishes," Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, said of the bill.

Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, moved to table the bill. He said the county needs to alleviate school crowding but that he still has questions about the measure.

Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, sponsored the bill and voted against tabling it. He said later that he had been unable to discuss the bill with other councilmen because of his father's death last week. He said he will continue to pursue the measure.

Separate analyses of Bartenfelder's proposal by the county's planning department and auditor concluded that because of loopholes in the law, changing the threshold to 5 percent from 15 percent would have little or no impact for the foreseeable future in the county's fast-growing areas around Owings Mills and White Marsh.

Both studies saw the bill as potentially cutting off development in only few areas.

One is the area around Hereford High School in northern Baltimore County, where Councilman T. Bryan McIntire is already exploring stricter growth limits through the quadrennial rezoning process. Another is on the county's east side near Kenwood High School, an area where the county has invested millions in recent years to encourage more development.

The planning department also saw the possibility that the bill would halt development near Towson High School, a part of the county which has seen virtually no new residential development for years.

Bartenfelder's bill did not alter exemptions in the law that allowed for development to continue near crowded schools when adjacent schools had seats to spare. Councilmen said that provision is designed to encourage the school system to relieve crowding by adjusting school district boundaries.

However, Baltimore County public schools historically have resisted changes to boundary lines. When Bartenfelder introduced his bill a month ago, school officials said they prefer to keep boundaries stable so families can be certain where their children will attend school.

If the school system won't change the boundaries, the only way to relieve crowding is by building schools or additions, Kamenetz said.

"In order to construct new schools, you need to have money to pay for them -- not just for the cost to build them but for the ongoing staffing expense for every year," Kamenetz said. "So either we have to cut back on existing projects and services in order to build new schools or we have to raise taxes. The council does not want to raise taxes."

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat, said that in many areas residential development is not causing the school crowding. Instead, houses in older neighborhoods are turning over from one generation to the next, leading to an increase in the number of children in schools, he said.

"My concern is that the bill is not effective, but the issues are relevant," Gardina said. "I just don't know what to do. I just don't think overcrowding is caused by development."

Also at last night's meeting, Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, introduced a bill at County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s request to increase the surcharge on telephone bills by 25 cents to pay for an upgrade to the county's 911 center.

The $2 million in improvements would include a system to allow 911 operators to locate callers using cellular phones. The surcharge now is 50 cents a month.

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