Council to revisit growth control

Officials to take up new adequate facilities measure next month

January 28, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Though an effort to tighten a law aimed at limiting residential construction near crowded schools was defeated recently, a less-restrictive proposal is expected to come before the County Council next month.

The law - known as the adequate facilities ordinance - was enacted in 1991 to prevent residential construction in areas with crowded schools. But it allows proposed development to proceed if a nearby school's enrollment has not exceeded 105 percent of capacity and if relief - in the form of a new or expanded school - is planned for the near future.

Councilmen Dion F. Guthrie and James V. McMahan Jr. want to close what they see as gaps in the law.

Guthrie offered the bill that was defeated this month and would have shut down development in any area where a school has reached 105 percent capacity, regardless of what relief is planned.

McMahan, whose bill comes before the council Feb. 6, would allow development as long as fully funded school projects are on the way. He calls for "latitude with controlled planning."

School construction plans depend on many factors, including funding, land availability and a building timetable. The adequate facilities law allows county planners to rely on enrollment projections and proposed school capital projects in making development decisions.

Critics said Guthrie's proposal would have pushed development to Harford's more rural areas, where officials want to preserve farmland.

McMahan's proposal would allow planners to consider enrollment projections and funded capital projects before deciding to approve a developer's site plans. New homes could enter the construction pipeline as long as there is a foundation on the ground for a new school, he said.

"We have to strengthen the law because too much is left open to interpretation," McMahan said. "The people have to win on this issue. They have to see that we are doing something to control growth."

The Republican-majority council defeated Guthrie's bill by a 5-2 vote along party lines. That action followed nearly an hour of testimony from about 30 residents concerned with crowded schools, particularly around Bel Air.

Many residents used the Jan. 16 council meeting as a forum to protest a development that has already won planning approval and will move forward. The project, known as Paca's Meadows, is slated for construction on a historic farm property on Moores Mill Road. Preliminary plans call for a 172-unit subdivision with townhouses and condominiums. Those homes could add 350 students to an elementary school that is already at 140 percent capacity and further strain the middle and high schools in the area.

CeeCee Meholic, a former PTA president and Bel Air resident, offered current enrollments and alarming projections that show Prospect Mill Elementary, which is already surrounded by portable classrooms, reaching 160 percent within the next few years.

"The elementary is at a crisis," she said. "You can't build more. People trust you all to do what is right."

Mizella White, a former teacher from Edgewood, said that, without adequate space, "you create chaos in the schools."

Larry English of Forest Hill said the county should enact a building moratorium wherever school crowding occurs and not lift it until a school is below 105 percent of its capacity. Other parents urged officials to lower the allowable capacity to 100 percent.

"It seems like five council members didn't hear those concerns," said Guthrie after his bill was defeated. "Without the measure, we are saying the administration and Planning can override the law."

Harford funnels growth toward a development envelope - areas in and around established communities. Several officials said amending the law might redirect growth to rural areas.

"We cannot have a preliminary plan approved if the schools are crowded," Guthrie said. "It is irrelevant whether those schools are inside or outside the envelope."

Council President Billy Boniface said the parents' testimony concerned him, and he expressed dismay at what he views as gaps in the established law. But he cast a no vote.

"The current law leaves a great deal of room for using enrollment projections." Boniface said. "But if we change the interpretation of the law, there could be drastic effects outside the development envelope. Development has to take place within the envelope. This proposal does not manage growth, it redirects it."

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