Council approves facilities measure

Ordinance to toughen law on building homes near crowded schools

February 11, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Building homes near crowded schools will be tougher to do in Harford County, especially in areas near Bel Air where portable classrooms surround most schools.

The County Council unanimously passed a measure last week that strengthens the adequate public facilities law, which limits home construction where infrastructure is burdened. The momentum for the legislation comes largely in response to parents concerned with crowded classrooms.

Under the former law, home building could proceed in an area with crowded schools if a new school was in the planning stages. The new ordinance requires a new school to be funded and under construction before a site plan for nearby residential development can be approved.

The measure, the first passed by the new council, which took office in November, marks a tangible strengthening of the adequate public facilities ordinance, which dates to 1991 and left too much to interpretation, said Councilman James V. McMahan, a Republican who was elected last fall to represent the Bel Air district.

"The old law didn't set a timeline for construction or address funding or actual construction costs," he said.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat who also is new to the council, said she was concerned about any law that was left up to administrative interpretation.

"We had this law but no guidance on how to interpret it," she said.

McMahan and Democratic Councilman Dion F. Guthrie had sponsored competing bills in recent weeks to remedy what they saw as gaps in the policy.

Guthrie's proposal, which was defeated by a council vote last month, would have prevented development until a new school was up and running. McMahan originally called for allowing development if a new school was scheduled to open within two years but amended his bill to one year.

"In order to obtain a permit, capital funding must be in place," McMahan said. "Construction must have begun and be completed within a year."

McMahan acknowledged that the measure will not be a cure-all. But, he said, "It shows we are listening to the people."

Lisanti urged her colleagues to look at the larger picture. Roads, public safety, utilities all need to meet adequacy thresholds, she said.

"At least this bill begins to define the law for planners," she said. "But all the pieces have to come together. We can't just look at schools. We must look at community."

Perryman resident Fred Silva lauded the measure but asked the council to take it further.

"You are the lawmakers," he said. "Close all the loopholes and expand this bill."

Fallston resident Morita Bruce said the new law does nothing for residential projects that have received approval. She called for stronger measures that would put the brakes on projects in the review process.

"If our objective is to prevent crowding in schools, more needs to be done," she said. "We can't stop at preliminary planning approval."

Guthrie assured residents that he would submit other adequate facilities measures.

"It won't end here," he said. "There are other loopholes that need adjusting."

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