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Bill aimed at curbing school overcrowding fails to pass Howard County Council for second time

After introducing legislation twice and filing amendments to find common ground with fellow council members, a Howard County councilwoman’s yearlong battle to tighten regulations on an ordinance that deals with school capacity ended this week.

Council Vice Chairwoman Liz Walsh decided to tackle the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, commonly known as APFO, a set of regulations that weighs residential construction’s impact on nearby roads and school populations, first in April 2019 and again in January.

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In 2018, the County Council narrowly passed a modification to APFO which tightened controls on development by lowering thresholds on formulas that define when schools are considered overcrowded.

The ordinance says if a proposed residential project fails the threshold test, the developer must wait four years; then it is retested and “deemed to have passed the school capacity test,” the ordinance states.

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Walsh set out to change the four-year wait period to seven years. However, through county Department of Planning and Zoning analysis, she found the four-year period is pretty loose; on average, the wait time for developers to test again is two years.

During her second attempt, sensing other council members would not vote in favor, Walsh filed amendments; one changed the seven-year wait time to six years and another changed it to a five-year term.

The bill still failed 3-2 Monday night, with little discussion during the vote and taking less than 15 minutes total.

“It’s an obvious fix to an obvious problem. I simplified it, I compromised it as much as I possibly could, and I am incredulous that I could not find common ground with at least one more of you,” Walsh said during Monday’s virtual council meeting.

Walsh and Council Chairwoman Deb Jung voted in favor of the regulations; Christiana Mercer Rigby, Opel Jones and David Yungmann voted no.

“I wouldn’t rule out introducing it again and I wouldn't rule out those who voted against it to [eventually] support it,” Walsh said Tuesday.

Walsh’s final amendment looked to deal with three projects currently “in the hopper,” making them all wait another year.

The projects, all in the Ellicott City watershed which is Walsh’s district, are the Towns at Court Hill, Lacey Property and Dorsey’s Ridge, all looking to claim acreage to build more homes.

Lisa Markovitz, president of the People’s Voice, a local civic and political action group, and a longtime advocate of a stronger APFO, was disappointed with the outcome of Monday’s vote.

“My worst-case scenario was some amendments would get passed, but the bill would fail,” Markovitz, said. “When I watched them not even be able to pass any amendments and vote the bill down, it just felt like a brick wall.”

There was no discussion on the bill’s four amendments or any conversation on the overall bill. Only Walsh and Jung gave remarks when casting the final vote.

“This bill needs to be passed now. ... We need to slow down the [development] process so we can ensure there are schools available for our students. Otherwise, our community pays the price,” Jung said as she cast her vote.

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“As a County Council, we need to ensure [the students’] success and that means not overcrowding our schools.”

During the vote, Rigby, Jones and Yungmann did not elaborate on their decisions to consistently vote “no” on all aspects of the bill.

“It was pretty incredible … with their complete unwillingness to even engage on it,” Walsh said Tuesday.

Markovitz said, “I wish Opel Jones, Christiana Mercer Rigby and Dave Yungmann had expressed their reasons. There was zero discussion on these amendments.”

After the meeting, Yungmann explained his “two main reasons” for voting against the bill in a Facebook post: the “real potential of an economic downturn” and the “lack of an in-depth public work session with all the parties,” including the council, the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, the Howard County Public School System and the Board of Education.

“I am unwilling to support anything that costs Howard County jobs right now given the imminent threat to our economy,” Yungmann wrote, referring to the coronavirus health emergency.

“I have zero confidence that the situation would be any different if [the school system] had two more years to create capacity. The answer is not a change to one narrow part of the system that again places the entire burden on our economy and property owners,” Yungmann wrote.

During the three work sessions focusing on APFO — June 21, Jan. 27 and Feb. 24 — various members of all concerned parties were present, according to archived council videos.

Recently, representatives were present at the joint school board and council meeting on March 9, where APFO was discussed.

“Changes to the APFO regulatory framework just went into effect less than a year ago, and Howard County has already seen a significant reduction in development patterns resulting both from APFO and legislative actions taken by the County Council last year,” Rigby said Tuesday.

“Given these measures and the expected economic downturn due to COVID-19, it would be unwise to pass this legislation now. I am open to revisiting this in the future in a collaborative process.”

When the bill failed the first time in July, Rigby said during the vote that if she saw “real meaningful [school] redistricting that goes across the whole [school] system,” she would feel more confident in extending the development wait time.

The school board approved a systemwide redistricting plan in November that will move around 5,400 students to new schools in the fall.

Jones did not respond to a request for comment.

Markovitz, who sat on an APFO task force established by former County Executive Allan Kittleman, said the 2018 vote, which tightened controls that were “years and years in the making, only happened because it was an election year.”

The 2018 vote, which was made by the previous County Council, established overcapacity thresholds for elementary schools and elementary regions that are 105% overcapacity, 110% for middle schools and 115% for high schools.

“You had people who were clearly firm on one side or the other and a couple in the gray area and those folks, with the less inflexible stance, had a little more impetus to look at what [their fellow council members] were doing since it was an election year,” Markovitz said.

Even if APFO is revisited in the future and reform happens, “it will take years” for the changes to be implemented, Markovitz said.

“I’m just disappointed,” she said. “The council did not do their job here.”

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