For the first time in nearly seven years, Carroll's planning commission has voted to halt new residential development because of overcrowded elementary schools.
The seven-member commission yesterday decided to deny final approvals of any subdivision in the Friendship Valley Elementary School District south of Westminster until the school overcrowding there is corrected.
In so doing, the commission put developers of projects with four or more lots on notice that final approvals would be denied anywhere in Carroll where education officials say schools are inadequate. The most likely places where schools are going to be overcrowded are in the southeastern part of the county and near Hampstead, planning commission members said.
"I think that they are finally doing their jobs," Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown said yesterday of the moratorium. "I know it was a tough decision, but it's important that we don't send mixed signals when it comes to adequate facilities."
Yesterday's decision denied the developer of Westminster Highlands the right to record the 50 lots in the project's first phase. The 157-unit development off Route 27 south of Westminster would only add to the overcrowding of Friendship Valley Elementary School, according to school and county planning officials.
Westminster Highland's developer -- David Sievart, a principal of Scherr Homes in Reisterstown -- could not be reached for comment on the commission's action.
Under the county's adequate facilities ordinance, the planning commission can delay or deny residential developments if roads, schools or plants are inadequate.
But the planning commission over the years has found ways around that prohibition. Yesterday was the first time they told a developer "no" based on a lack of adequate facilities.
"I felt it was about time," Commissioner Richard T. Yates said yesterday of the moratorium. "If the schools are crowded, we should do it more frequently. Our job is to control growth and to make sure that it doesn't destroy our quality of life."
The commission said they wanted to work over the next several months with the Board of Education and the County Commissioners to address possible ways to allow Westminster Highlands -- and similar developments -- to proceed.
"We need to deal with this moratorium that exists right now," Commission Chairman Dennis P. Bowman said. "If we try to do it all, we'll spend months studying it, and we don't have months here."
The commission suggested that the school board might consider redistricting elementary school boundaries, noting that several other elementary schools in and around Westminster are operating below capacity.
By placing a moratorium on final approvals, the planning commission has not stopped all development.
The commission excluded projects with three or fewer lots from the moratorium. Such projects accounted for only 12 percent of residential development in the county last year, planning officials said.
The moratorium also will not affect dozens of lots already recorded but not yet developed.
Commissioner Donald I. Dell said yesterday the decision is a drastic measure that probably had to be taken. But he cautioned that the county can't stop development.
"People have a legal right to build on their land if the zoning says they can," Mr. Dell said. "Eventually we'll have to break loose and provide infrastructure."
In early 1988, the planning commission enacted a countywide building moratorium, which held up the development of more than 8,700 homes.
The commission made that decision in the wake of overcrowding in 13 of 16 elementary schools in the county.
After pressure from the county's building industry -- and it's estimated 5,000 employees -- the planning commission lifted the moratorium that October amid promises from the county commissioners to spend $31 million on new schools.