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Building moratorium up for vote


The Baltimore County Council is scheduled to vote today on extending a 5-year-old moratorium on home-building near crowded schools, but the outcome will not address the underlying problem -- the government's failure to find a long-term solution to the classroom crunch.

The fact that crowding remains is one reason that Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina is proposing another study of the problem, this time aimed at ways to pay for more classrooms, such as taxing districts or impact fees.

Unlike other metropolitan counties that have a combination of permanent adequate facilities laws and impact fees regulating construction near elementary and secondary schools, Baltimore County has kept its partial, temporary building moratorium affecting only areas near elementary schools that are 20 percent over capacity.

In addition to the 19 elementary schools the county expects to be over the limit this fall, seven middle schools and six high schools are at or over capacity.

The temporary, Band-Aid approach has kept the controversy going, fueling anger from the house builders and from community residents who keep hearing political rhetoric but keep seeing the same problems.

That's why today's vote isn't likely to settle anything for very long.

Most of the major players in the debate agree that there will not be a major impact on schools, whether the moratorium is extended for a year or allowed to die.

"It's probably just politics -- because [an extension] really doesn't solve the problem," Perry Hall Improvement Association President Dorothy McMann conceded after a discussion of the issue at a council work session.

But there has to be some minimal control," she said. "It doesn't take long for a school to get more than 20 percent overcrowded."

Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley of Catonsville, one of four moratorium-extension co-sponsors, virtually conceded the point. "It is somewhat political," he said. "People in my district are dead set against letting the law die away. Something has got to be done."

The builders have angrily noted that even the county government acknowledges that only three of 19 elementary schools projected to be near or exceeding the standard of 20 percent over capacity have any new houses planned near them.

The combined total of 94 houses planned likely won't produce many students, and County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, who supported the moratorium in 1990 as a councilman, agrees that it should die now.

School planner James Kraft also agreed with the builders during a 1992 study of the problem, noting that the overall school population dropped by 54,000 between 1971 and 1986, while the county issued 84,000 building permits for new houses.

The 1,200-home Loveton Farms development in Cockeysville, he said then, produced only 44 elementary students, 20 middle-schoolers and 19 high school students.

Despite five years of efforts that have added 5,000 classroom seats in county elementaries, overall county school enrollment continues to climb by about 3,500 children a year. Meanwhile, slumping tax revenue growth is making it hard for the county to keep pace.

Those 5,000 new seats were achieved through a combination of school construction, re-opening of old schools, school district boundary changes and building low-cost, premanufactured additions.

Baltimore County Homebuilder's Association President John Clark said year-round schools would solve the problem, and county Councilman Douglas B. Riley of Towson, who is now pushing a six-month extension as a compromise, said more use of modular additions is the real answer.

"Follow the kids," Councilman Riley said. "That's the ultimate solution." He also saw the moratorium extension as "really a political solution."

Terry M. Rubenstein, a builder and chairwoman of the county Chamber of Commerce, told the council Tuesday that a moratorium extension and the recent defeat of a proposed Price Club warehouse store in Timonium together would send a strong message that "Baltimore County is not a place to do business."

Mr. Clark said the moratorium means economic "death" for the county. "It's wrong, ill-conceived and a detriment to Baltimore County," he said.

Still, the council appears likely to approve an extension.

Council Chairman Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat who is among the co-sponsors, expressed confidence his majority on the seven-member council will hold when the vote is taken.

But the builders' vehement opposition to extending the moratorium has had some effect.

Fullerton Democrat Joseph Bartenfelder, another co-sponsor of the measure, was favoring the six-month compromise proposed by Mr. Riley. He has support from Dundalk Democrat Louis L. DePazzo, who said the county "shouldn't have even started a moratorium." One more vote would give Mr. Riley the majority.

The wild card is Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat Kevin B. Kamenetz, who said he sees merit on both sides of the issue, but has not said how he'll vote.

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