School pressures grow

Plans for new facilities joust with desire to preserve rural lands

April 08, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

There was consensus among County Council members last week that Harford's rural landscape is threatened, that its schools are crowded and that current policies have failed.

How that would translate into votes on a bill tightening the link between elementary school capacity and new development, however, was tough to predict.

The bill revised the county's adequate public facilities ordinance, bringing the county's criteria for determining school capacity in line with the state standard. When a school eclipses that threshold, the entire school district is closed to most development.

For supporters, the bill further ensures that homebuilding will cease in crowded districts until schools can handle the new students. Detractors argued that the new measure deflects growth toward rural areas.

In his most pointed comments yet, Council President Billy Boniface denounced the county's planning approach and a lack of state funds for school construction, saying attempts to curb growth haven't been bolstered with the means to build needed infrastructure.

Putting most of the blame on the state government, the first-term Republican's frustrations boiled over as he criticized County Executive David R. Craig's proposed budget, which would double capital spending.

"If we pass this budget that's been proposed to us as is, [a budget] that says no tax increases, I can guarantee you we will be raising taxes, because there'll be no other way to deal with this," Boniface said. "The current system we use to fund school construction is broken."

Fellow newcomer Chad Shrodes, a Republican who represents northern Harford, was similarly concerned with the county's policies. Along with Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, who chairs the council's adequate public facilities committee, Shrodes said the bill would make things worse.

"This bill encourages sprawl. It's got sprawl written all over it," he said at the meeting.

The former county planner said that from 2002 to 2006, more than four times as many acres outside the county's designated growth area than inside it were approved for development. Buildings inside the development area were far more dense, however.

"Before we increase development pressure in our invaluable farmland areas, we need to institute a zoning code that will best protect farmers and preserve our quality of life," Shrodes wrote in an e-mail later in the week.

One of the bill's sponsors, Councilman James V. McMahan Jr., said the intent of the legislation is to manage growth while a revision of the zoning code is completed. Officials have said a new code could be ready by mid-2008.

"With 5,209 planned units in the pipeline already in the development envelope, that gives us a two-year window to do some planning, to get a better vision," McMahan said. "I hope this gives us a breathing period to get that done."

Here's how the adequate public facilities law works: When a school reaches 105 percent of capacity, the county government is required to halt preliminary site approval for the development of new homes.

The council recently tightened the law so that the county could not allow developers to proceed with plans until a school is funded and under construction.

The bill approved last week centered on a disparity between the state-rated capacity of elementary schools - 23 students per regular classroom - and the county's figure of 25 students per classroom.

Approval of the bill effectively closes to development an additional six elementary school districts, nearly all of which are in the development area.

At a public hearing, opponents of the bill said overcrowding numbers are overblown and that property owners' rights are being discarded.

Attorney Joseph F. Snee Jr. said several schools are far below capacity, a problem that could be solved by redistricting. Though 16 schools have been built in the past 30 years, he said, student enrollment in the county has risen only slightly.

Michael E. Leaf, another attorney, said the county's failure to keep pace with the adequate public facilities law hurts property owners.

"We thought if schools got to that point [of triggering a moratorium on development], there would be a temporary shutdown and one of two things would happen: The county government would build schools necessary to increase capacity, or shift students so we would have some reasonable amount of children in each school," he said.

"The county administrations prior to this one didn't build schools as needed, and the Board of Education didn't redistrict. So now the whipping boy is the builders, the developers and landowners. That is totally unfair."

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