Pressures from new houses hit schools

Plans OK'd despite Balto. County law


Just beyond the playground at Chapel Hill Elementary School, a bulldozer sits among dirt lots that will soon be dotted with single-family homes. Across the street, contractors hammer away on the last of more than 60 houses built on an old farm. Up the road, a sign advertises "36 beautiful two-car garage villas."

The new homes in eastern Baltimore County will be served by Chapel Hill Elementary, where pupils are projected to outnumber lockers next fall and two trailers are being installed to relieve the building's crowded classrooms.

"If you looked at the number of developments still being developed over the area, Chapel Hill's just going to pop a gasket," said Michael Gaffney, whose daughter, Shannon, attends first grade at the school. "Would they continue to issue building permits if there wasn't enough water or enough electricity?"

Counties throughout Maryland have laws designed to prevent new homes from overwhelming such essentials as roads, water and schools, and some have been quick to block development near crowded schools. Baltimore County also has an "adequate public facilities ordinance," but there, plans for houses near overflowing classrooms are routinely approved.

More than two dozen residential projects have gone forward in recent years near schools that exceeded their capacity by 15 percent, the point at which a moratorium is to take effect.

"I personally feel our adequate-facilities ordinance is just not working," said County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat who is one of two county lawmakers pushing for changes in the law.

Critics of the current version of the law point to an exemption that essentially sets up a stalemate between the county government and the school system. The law allows homes to be built near schools that are over their rated capacity if an adjoining school is under capacity.

But the school system, which receives most of its funding from the county but governs itself, rarely takes up the thorny task of redrawing school boundaries.

County officials say there is no reason to block construction or build a new school when other schools have the space to relieve crowding.

"The idea is to encourage the Board of Education to be proactive on these issues, and they're not," Gardina said. "They just sit back and get very complacent. The idea is that they'll move boundaries, and they don't do that."

School officials say most parents and students would rather avoid the emotional experience of changing schools. They also say that using redistricting as a short-term solution to crowding would increase the likelihood of some students changing schools multiple times.

"The Board of Education feels we need to value continuity, and we don't want to redistrict arbitrarily or frequently any more than needed," said Chris Brocato, a data analyst with the school system's Office of Strategic Planning. "It's a very powerful tool, and it's not one we need to use haphazardly."

Under the latest County Council proposal - the third proposed change to the law in as many years - the county would turn down plans for homes near crowded schools unless the school system agreed to bus children from the new homes to schools that have the capacity to take them in.

Officials from the county administration and the school system have declined to comment publicly on the proposal. But the author of the bill, Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, said some officials have raised concerns about the costs of transporting children to schools out of their districts, as well as the potential loss of tax revenue caused by building moratoriums.

Moxley said that the intent of the bill is to force redistricting, not stop growth.

"The problem is that a school is overcrowded, but we have other capacity to use," said Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat. "Why not let those children go there?"

Harford, Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties have imposed building moratoriums near crowded schools in recent years.

In Harford County, where the threshold for labeling a school crowded is 105 percent of its state-rated capacity, moratoriums are imposed in at least 12 school districts.

A Harford official describes Baltimore County's adequate public facilities ordinance as "worthless."

"If schools are 115 percent or more, then you're not supposed to have any more preliminary plans approved," said Harford County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie.

But a study released last week by the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Research concluded that moratoriums can have unintended consequences.

Building bans in Harford, Howard and Montgomery counties have caused housing shortages, driven up home prices and steered growth to areas that were meant to be preserved, according to the study, which was underwritten by home-building interest groups.

"You can't shut the county down because we'd have to raise taxes, and we don't want to do that," said Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat.

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