Bill targets growth loophole

Balto. County Council seeks tougher law to ease school crowding

December 19, 2005|By JOSH MITCHELL AND LIZ F. KAY | JOSH MITCHELL AND LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTERS

Pointing to the example of an elementary school that opened with 200 more pupils than it was built to hold, Baltimore County Council members are looking to strengthen a law that is designed to cut off residential development near crowded schools.

The council is to vote tonight on a bill that would prohibit homes from being built if they, along with other planned developments, would lead to a school exceeding its capacity by 15 percent.

Under the current adequate facilities law, the county could approve two residential projects that, individually, would not cause a school to become crowded, even if the combined effect of the two plans would be to raise school enrollment to more than 115 percent of capacity.

All seven council members have sponsored the proposed legislation.

"When the education forums were held in the three parts of the county, it was an issue at each one," Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, said of school crowding. "This is an important part of correcting the whole picture."

Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, who introduced the bill, pointed to the example of New Town Elementary School in Owings Mills, which exceeded capacity by about 200 students when it opened in 2001.

"How does that happen? Because they're not looking at the other projects in the area," said Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat. "I don't think it makes sense to keep your head in a bucket or look at these things in isolation."

School crowding is a hot-button issue in a county where, according to the most recent enrollment figures, nine of its more than 160 schools had exceeded its capacity by 15 percent.

The county sets the threshold at 115 percent for deeming a school crowded for purposes of the adequate facilities law.

The legislation does not address another issue: An exemption allows homes to be built near a school that is over capacity if a nearby school is under capacity.

The idea behind the exemption is that the county school board could even out enrollment through redistricting. But historically the school board has been loath to change boundary lines.

County school board President Tom Grzymski said during his 4 1/2 years on the board, members have only approved plans to reset boundaries to incorporate newly built schools.

A `can of worms'

Redistricting "really opens up a tremendous can of worms in a community," he said. "I'm not in favor of redistricting for very small groups of kids."

Alan Zukerberg, a community activist, said he supports the bill but feels it does not go far enough. At a County Council work session last week, he said he opposes the exemption that allows homes to be built in crowded districts adjoining districts that are under capacity.

"The overriding theory should be what is best for the kids," Zukerberg said after the work session. "Why should they accommodate developers or development where kids have to be sent out of their district? The answer is, you create a new school first and then you create a new development."

Moxley said the exemption is "an issue that has to be looked at further."

Two other councilmen, Bartenfelder and T. Bryan McIntire, said they favored removing the exemption.

"You're assuming the school board would do redistricting to take care of that overcrowding situation but you could be assuming the wrong thing," said Bartenfelder. "It may not be done, and you're still faced with a school that's overcrowded."

Bartenfelder, who also supports reducing the 115 percent threshold, said the bill "helps take us where we need to go. It doesn't go far enough in the aspect that it does not address the threshold of overcrowding."

Builders' concerns

Tom Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, said he has concerns about the bill.

The homebuilders association is not opposed to the concept, but wonders about technical issues, such as how early in the planning process projects would be counted.

"Its intent is something that's rational and done in other counties, but the problem was that the bill was written in a way that could require conceptual plans to be added into that count," Ballentine said.

Timothy M. Kotroko, director of the county Department of Permits and Development Management, said the current law has triggered no moratoriums in recent years.

"What we have found through practice and procedure is when the developers are looking into an area and doing their feasibility study, once they learn they have this overcrowding problem they don't bother to move forward with submitting their development plans," Kotroko said. "What the bill essentially does is it has a preemptive effect on development."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com liz.kay@baltsun.com

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