The number of Howard County schools in danger of overcrowding has doubled in the past year, with most along the U.S. 1 corridor where the county has sought to spur redevelopment, according to a report awaiting submission to the County Council.
That means not only unhappy parents and teachers, but potential delays in building homes along the county's oldest commercial corridor under growth-control laws that curb development around schools that are 15 percent or more over their rated capacity.
Plans to build an elementary school in Elkridge and a middle school in the corridor should solve much of the problem, officials said, but the school board hasn't been able to settle on land for either of them because of uncertainty over a proposed CSX rail cargo transfer station.
The crowding charts are prepared annually to predict overcrowding three years in the future. This year's report also shows capacity issues coming to several older schools that have never had that problem. Talbott Springs Elementary in Columbia made the list, though no new homes are being built, as the recession pushes more families into nearby apartments.
"It's demographic changes in older neighborhoods," said Joel Gallihue, manager of planning for the county schools. He says he hopes the board will move forward simultaneously on the two new schools along U.S. 1, and that redistricting could help Talbott Springs.
This year's charts predict overcrowding in 14 county schools by 2014 — seven elementary schools and seven middle schools. Last year's charts showed a total of seven schools.
This year, all four middle schools in the northeast — Bonnie Branch, Elkridge Landing, Ellicott Mills and Mayfield Woods — are projected to be over the 115 percent crowding limit by 2014, along with Murray Hill and Patuxent Valley middle schools in the southern end of the U.S. 1 corridor in North Laurel. Dunloggin Middle in the northern part of the county is the seventh.
Of the six U.S. 1-area middle schools marked "closed" to development in 2014 this year, just three were predicted to be closed for 2014 on last year's charts.
"It's definitely something that needs to be addressed," said county planning director Marsha McLaughlin. "We don't want school crowding to hold up [projects] on Route 1."
Four of the seven elementary schools marked "closed" to development in 2014 on this year's charts were not predicted to be overcrowded on last year's charts, and two that were marked closed to development last year dropped off the 2011 version. For 2014, the new chart predicts crowding at Talbott Springs and Running Brook, two of Columbia's oldest elementary schools. In Elkridge, crowding is expected at Bellows Spring, Deep Run and Elkridge, plus Forest Ridge and Guilford elementary schools in the southeast.
"I'm relieved to see the charts are reflecting the trend," said Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association and an advocate for more county facilities in the fast-growing area.
Builders are unhappy about the inconsistencies in the charts from one year to the next, said Michael Harrison, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland.
"The wild swings aren't from new construction," he said, adding that developers are unsure from year to year whether their projects can go forward under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance adopted in 1992. "I think it's time to review the process."
Council consideration of the new charts has been delayed at least until July because officials want to study those inconsistencies, McLaughlin said. Still county officials say the crowding problem is likely a short-term one that will fade once the planned middle and elementary schools are built.
"The school system is close to acquiring sites for both elementary and middle schools along the Route 1 corridor, which should alleviate the problem in short order," said Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who also represents Elkridge.
But hopes for having the new, 600-seat elementary in Elkridge open by August 2013 are fading, and no site has been obtained for the middle school planned to open in 2015. So, those new seats are not included on the charts.
The school enrollment charts seek to predict crowding beyond 115 percent of a building's capacity three years ahead, to give the county time to build classrooms or adjust district boundaries.
Howard uses a system of limited annual housing allocations plus predictions of school congestion to control growth and slow development around crowded schools. Builders must first obtain allocations for proposed new homes and then must pass the school crowding test before they can go forward. If nothing is done in four years, builders may go ahead anyway.
According to Jeff Bronow, the county planning department's chief of research, 430 proposed homes are now delayed by growth controls in the Elkridge area and 529 units in the southeast, covering North Laurel.