Harford debates facilities statute

School-crowding law said to be broken


A Harford County councilman is charging that the county government is violating a law delaying development around crowded schools - a touchy issue this election year.

Suburban politicians are under pressure from voters resentful of school crowding and traffic congestion to limit home construction, while builders complain the restrictions are driving up housing prices and forcing people to commute farther to work.

But Harford County government approved nearly 2,200 residential permits in 2005, the most in at least a decade, according to figures from the Planning and Zoning Department.

Despite that, county officials said the planned opening of a new school next year should relieve the crowding, while at least one councilman says that is not good enough.

In a letter to County Executive David R. Craig, Councilman Dion F. Guthrie said that allowing development around three overcrowded schools based on projections that crowding will decrease next year violates the county's adequate public facilities law. The law prevents new projects being planned around county schools at more than 5 percent of their rated capacity.

"The county's adequate public facilities law does not provide for the lifting of the moratorium until the enrollment figures are 105 percent or lower," wrote Guthrie, a Democrat from Joppatowne who has pushed for tighter standards.

Guthrie's concerns focused on three schools in the Fallston area - C. Milton Wright High School, Fallston Middle School and Fallston High School. The schools are each projected to be over capacity for the coming school year, but are predicted to fall below the 105 percent threshold next year when the opening of a new middle and high school complex will trigger countywide redistricting.

Based on those projections, the county Planning and Zoning Department gave the green light for development. Another district - surrounding Southampton Middle School - has been opened based on the expected redistricting, and a housing development for seniors has been proposed nearby.

"We have identified that the additional capacity at Patterson Mill will provide relief to these school districts," said Pete C. Gutwald, director of planning and zoning, who said the county has applied the law consistently since 1991. "This new capacity will be accounted for."

But Guthrie said there is no guarantee that the new school at Patterson Mill will open on schedule or that redistricting will achieve the goal of relieving pressure in Fallston. He called them "assumptions."

"If the school is open, they might have an argument. But the school is not open and is assumed to be open," he said in an interview.

Counties throughout Maryland have laws designed to prevent new homes from overwhelming essentials such as roads, water and schools - with varying degrees of success.

In Baltimore County, a task force was formed in the spring to study why homes were continuing to be built near severely crowded schools. At the same time, a study by the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth found that building restrictions in Harford, Howard and Montgomery have caused housing shortages, driven up home prices, and steered growth to areas that were meant to be preserved.

As far back as December, Harford's Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board had suggested moratoriums would be lifted because of redistricting and the opening of Patterson Mill.

"With the addition of Patterson Mill, capacity issues at most middle and high schools will be under APF limits, at least for the short term. The exception appears to be Aberdeen H.S. which will be over the limit," wrote the board's chairman, Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, in a May report.


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