The selection of two new school sites in Elkridge at Oxford Square and Ducketts Lane — chosen to alleviate overcrowding in northeast Howard County — could clear the way for developers to build new homes in the area.
Nearly 30 new housing developments planned for Elkridge have been on hold because growth-control laws curb development around schools that are 15 percent or more over capacity. Three northeast middle schools and four elementary schools were predicted to soon exceed their limits, but with two new school sites chosen, the County Council can now approve the number of new home projects in the area.
The council must approve the housing unit allocation and the school capacity charts together; both will be introduced at Monday's legislative session.
The school board had delayed submitting its capacity charts over the summer until it had secured two new schools in the northeast, said Joel Gallihue, manager of planning for the county schools.
Unlike the rest of the county, the northeast still has a waiting list of builders hoping to start new projects, as officials have promoted development along the U.S. 1 corridor. The recession has also helped shift home building trends in Howard — from large single-family homes in the west, to less expensive multi-family apartment, townhome and condo developments in the east.
Jeff Bronow, the county planning department's chief of research, said there are 27 projects on hold in Elkridge.
He said the overall housing unit allocations for the whole county, from 2014 to 2016, have grown because whatever allocations are not used one year are passed on to the next. In 2014, the county chart permits 3,326 allocations, compared to 2,954 in 2015, and 2,201 in 2016.
"Given the economy, we haven't had a whole lot of development," Bronow said.
But in the Elkridge area, where there are more proposed housing units than allocations, schools are considered "closed" because they are 15 percent above their rated capacity, making developers wait to build in that area of the county. Builders must first obtain allocations for proposed new homes and then must pass the school crowding test before they can go forward.
Michael Harrison, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said the Elkridge area is always the most overcrowded, but, he said, the school capacity charts each year are not consistent, making it challenging for developers to plan and complete new developments.
This year's charts predict crowding in 14 county schools by 2014, but last year's charts showed it in seven schools.
"Schools are being closed despite no development," Harrison said. He believes the county process should be reformed to take into account student growth from existing housing.
The Howard County Board of Education prepares charts annually to predict school overcrowding three years in the future, which affects the number of housing units county officials permit. The allocations are developed in advance to prepare facilities for any influx in students.
Bronow said that if the council approves the school capacity and housing allocation charts, 23 Elkridge projects will get the green light, while three will have to wait another year. A fourth project will have to wait until school crowding is resolved in the southeast, where school officials must either find a new school site or adjust the existing schools' populations through redistricting.
Officials hope that crowding at the four northeast middle schools — Bonnie Branch, Elkridge Landing, Ellicott Mills, and Mayfield Woods — will be eased with a new middle school at the new Oxford Square development in Elkridge.
The school board approved the 20.2-acre site at Coca Cola and Park Circle drives in Elkridge for a middle school Oct. 20. The school board had considered the site for an elementary school but held off on the land because of uncertainty over a proposed CSX rail cargo transfer station.
The school board hopes to have site plans for the new middle school prepared by March in order to qualify for state funding in 2013 to build the school. The school is scheduled to open in August 2014.
Also in the northeastern section of the county, officials hope projected growth at Bellow Springs, Deep Run and Elkridge elementary schools will be eased by a new school planned for a 10.1-acre site at Ducketts Lane. School officials hope to open a 600-seat elementary school there in August 2013.
No other new schools are immediately planned for the southeastern section of the county, which also expects enrollment growth. Instead, school officials hope redistricting affecting 10 elementary schools will ease capacity. The school board is scheduled to vote on a redistricting plan at a Nov. 17 meeting, Gallihue said.
He said the school system prefers redistricting — "moving boundaries of schools so that we can take advantage of capacity. We want to make the best use of what we have."
While school officials work to accommodate enrollment growth in the east as interests in development continues, allocations elsewhere remain abundant.
In addition to geographical locations, the county has allocations under categories such as senior housing, moderate-income housing and green housing. The number of allocations is based on guidelines outlined in the county's General Plan for growth.
The "green neighborhoods" category, whose requirements include energy and water efficiency, shows a higher number of unused allocations. Bronow said the only development to take advantage of the project is Locust Chapel in Elkridge.
In the past, he said the rural west category had been popular for developers building large single-family homes, since homes in that area must rely on wells without public sewer. But now, the trend is toward more modest homes in the east.
Bronow said the county can adjust the number of allocations as plans are laid for the 2030 General Plan. He said the rural west once had 250 housing unit allocations each year, but 100 of those allocations have been transferred to the newer green neighborhoods category, reflecting a shift in development trends.