Development waivers become heated issue


Like Hamlet in his lament "To be or not to be," Anne Arundel County is struggling with the question of whether or not to grant waivers for new development in crowded school districts.

By granting a waiver, and assessing a fee, the county's Department of Planning and Code Enforcement can decide that a development can be created -- despite school planners' objections that new students living there would be assigned to crowded classrooms.

The fee, or waiver as it is called, is the developer's way of paying to upgrade the school facilities to avoid a delay.

"But in some of the small subdivisions you might have $100,000 here or $50,000 there, and that isn't enough to upgrade the facility," said Ralph Luther, acting assistant superintendent for support services. "For every classroom in that area that is overcrowded, it makes the learning situation more difficult for students."

The issue has led to heated debate in the county executive race.

Democrat Bob Agee, who helped design the waiver system during former County Executive O. James Lighthizer's administration, said it needs to be "reined in." The system, he said, is not working the way it was intended.

Ted Sophocleus, another Democrat, also has proposed curtailing the number of waivers granted.

But Republican John Gary said that to do away with waivers would eliminate an easy method of obtaining parkland or property for new schools.

What distresses school officials most is that their research and opinions are ignored by the Planning and Code Enforcement Department (PACE).

"Where we have overcrowded schools, we recommend denial," Mr. Luther said. "Then PACE lets them build. Eighty-eight times and counting over the last two years. Who knows what it's up to today?"

"Actually, it's higher than that," said Jim Cannelli, assistant director for the planning agency. "There have been 165 waivers approved since 1991."

But he doesn't understand why school planners are upset. Redistricting would solve some of the overcrowding problems, he said. Waivers also aren't to blame for overcrowding when parents with young children repopulate older neighborhoods, he said.

"Besides, all those waivers have generated a total of 515 students out of a school system that has, what, 70,000 students?" Mr. Cannelli said.

Mr. Cannelli questioned why school planners were not talking about the waivers granted for large developments in West County in 1988 and 1989: Walden and Chapman Farms in Crofton, and Russett, Piney Orchard and Seven Oaks. Those developments will generate about 6,000 new students for the school system when they are finished, he said.

But George Hatch, planning supervisor for the schools, said the location of developments is as much a problem as the number of houses being built.

"Take Eagles Passages," Mr. Hatch said, referring to a development of 52 single-family homes in Davidsonville.

"That development sent 23 students into Davidsonville Elementary," he said. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but the school is already 140 percent over the county's capacity."

In Eagles Passages, he said, the developer paid the county $3,800 per lot in waiver fees for the 52 lots in the subdivision.

"That's about $200,000, not enough to add on to the existing building," Mr. Luther said. "And it costs us about $83,000 to put a relocatable in place."

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