Housing limits face review

School formula that curtails development may be changed

December 12, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

Two Anne Arundel County Council members are calling for an end to a controversial formula that regulates where homes can be built based on school capacity, saying it unfairly closes some communities to residential developments.

Council members Jamie Benoit, a Democrat, and Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican, said yesterday in a work session that the school utilization chart - a once-a-year projection of enrollment - needs to be replaced with a system that uses a more up-to-date count.

Complaints about inaccurate counts shutting out home construction are almost as old as the formula, which has been around since the 1970s, but the Leopold administration and a new council that came into office last year are more receptive to tackling the thorny issue.

"I hope the seven of us can step in and fix this problem," Benoit said. "This chart has all the making and trappings of a disaster."

The council each year approves the chart, which compares projected enrollment with the state-rated capacity of each school. It determines whether a school is open or closed based on enrollment estimates three years into the future. When a school reaches 100 percent capacity, Anne Arundel closes the neighborhoods around it to residential building, without exception.

But the projections haven't always been borne out, due to subtle shifts in demographics. Dillon noted that while Freetown Elementary in Pasadena is considered closed to home building, many classrooms there are empty.

Benoit said he's working on a bill that would devise a system that could resemble Howard County's, which allows developers to build if a school just exceeds 100 percent capacity by paying impact fees with a premium.

Other council members, such as Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, appeared receptive to the notion of developers paying a premium over the normal impact fees in crowded areas.

"Otherwise, you aren't going to get the resources," she said.

The Leopold administration is on the verge of introducing an overhaul of impact fees, which developers pay to offset the cost of use of roads, schools and other county services.

Currently, developers pay $4,904 for a single-family home and $3,385 for a townhouse, and pass that amount onto the homebuyer. According to a report prepared for the county in September, the actual impact runs around $20,000. Council members speculated that the proposed impact fees for single-family homes could hit $20,000.

The comments came up during a discussion of a bill introduced by County Executive John R. Leopold that would place the authority of preparing the school utilization chart with the county's planning director and no longer require the board of education to approve it.

School-system officials said yesterday that the change would have no effect on how the population projections are made. The bill is backed by the school board.

Another bill under discussion yesterday, sponsored by Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican, would allow subdivisions of five homes or fewer to be exempt from the school-capacity test. Reilly's bill follows concerted lobbying by property owners who want to build homes for their children.

"These small subdivisions will have little impact on the schools," Reilly said.

The school board objected last week to Reilly's bill because it could allow too many unanticipated children to enter crowded schools.

"The general sense was that it lacked the safeguards and checks and balances," said Alex L. Szachnowicz, chief facilities officer for the school system.

A public hearing on the two measures is scheduled for Monday.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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