County's appeal draws families

Population: Good schools, a convenient location and the Chesapeake Bay fuel an influx of new Arundel residents.

August 08, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Amy Weaver opened Daily Discoveries preschool and kindergarten in 1995, she offered 127 spots for kids 8 weeks old through kindergarten. But demand quickly outstripped supply at her Gambrills facility. To meet the growing need, she expanded three times, until she had 380 spots and a staff of 88.

That's when she decided she'd had enough. Three years ago, "We made a conscious decision to go down to just under 200, and now I have a staff of 40," she said.

Still - in a sign of Anne Arundel County's reputation as a destination for young families - Weaver logs about 15 phone calls a day from people seeking child care. "Half of the calls I get each day for new enrollment are people who are moving into the area," she said.

The story of Daily Discoveries mirrors what's happening in the county as a whole. Census figures show that the number of children younger than age 18 living in the county has grown substantially, from 105,184 in 1990 (of a total population of 427,239) to 123,636 in 2000 (of a population of 489,656).

The number of families has increased from 113,425 in 1990 to 129,193 in 2000, according to figures supplied by county demographer Kui Zhao.

The reasons, observers say, include good schools, an acceptable commute to Baltimore and Washington, and - for many residents - communities with access to the Chesapeake Bay.

"What I usually hear from people is that the schools are probably the most driving force for them," said Jean Andrews, a local real estate agent for 18 years. "They identify which areas have the best schools and that's where they want to look."

The county's many strengths have drawn families such as the Byrnes, who live in the Fair Oaks community of Severna Park. Shannon Byrne, a pilot with JetBlue Airways, likes it there so much he commutes by plane to New York four times a month because he doesn't want to leave the county.

He and his wife, Jeanne, looked at communities near New York City, but found they could get much more for their money in Maryland. In February, the Byrnes and their three young children moved from a three-bedroom house in Severna Park to a four-bedroom home in Fair Oaks.

"We've been very lucky and fortunate to be able to stay," Jeanne Byrne said. "We like being this close to the water."

To cope with the impact of such demand, the county has made deliberate efforts to curtail residential growth.

Since County Executive Janet S. Owens has been in office, "She has refused to grant a development waiver for adequate public facilities where schools are at or over capacity," said Matt Diehl, the county public information officer.

In an e-mail, Owens said: "We have a beautiful county with many amenities and a wonderful quality of life, so I more than understand why people and families want to live here.

"The impact this is having on our schools, roads and infrastructure continues to challenge our county when dealing with a revenue cap. And, in listening to our citizens, it is clear that there is little desire to raise taxes."

Still, residential growth patterns mean that new schools must be built.

Chuck Yocum, a specialist in student demographic planning for the county school system, notes that the student population has held fairly steady at about 75,000 for the past five years or so.

Statistics from Maryland State Data Center predict a decrease in the number of school-age children in Anne Arundel, from 73,725 in 2002 down to a projected 72,870 in 2007 and 71,360 in 2012.

But development on the west side of Anne Arundel is prompting the county to build several elementary schools there.

Piney Orchard and Seven Oaks elementary schools and Meade Middle School all are under construction or have opened in the past five years, and a new elementary school for Gambrills likely will be next, Yocum said. Most of the high schools in the county are at capacity, and Arundel High School in Gambrills and Broadneck High in Annapolis are slightly over capacity.

This surge on the west side of the county is balanced by the north, which is losing students, he said.

Population growth patterns also have an impact on the demand for recreational opportunities.

"If you look at our program guide, you can do anything from bagpipes to football," said Dennis Callahan, who has been director of the Department of Recreation and Parks for the past six years and has seen tremendous growth in the number of participants.

More than 60,000 young people signed up for at least one recreation program last year, he said.

"We're talking big numbers," he said. The soccer program has about 450 teams. The county has 91 parks with sports fields, and that's still not enough.

"Anne Arundel County, it's no secret, is the place that people want to live," he said.

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