A county planning commission decision last week to halt new residential development near the county's crowded elementary schools throws the fate of hundreds of potential homes into jeopardy and, builders and planning officials say, illustrates what can happen when development begins to outpace Carroll's public services.
"This is about commitments that have been made, about leaving people hanging out there," said James Piet, an executive at Masonry Contractors and president of the Carroll chapter of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland.
"We've always asked the planning commission to give us a warning, not just stop it cold. Predictability is nice to have. Why not impose the moratorium, fix the problem and then go on from there. Don't let us die of cancer; solve the whole problem."
Not that crowding in seven elementary schools wasn't predictable.
School officials say they have been telling builders and planning commission members for years that attendance at schools near Eldersburg, Westminster and Hampstead was exploding.
"What schools are inadequate should not come as a surprise to anyone," said Kathleen Sanner, an assistant director in school facilities who tracks enrollment for the school system.
Despite that warning, planning commission members had, until Tuesday, declined to stop a development in areas served by schools rated as inadequate.
Now, according to figures provided by the school board, more than five large-scale developments with a total of more than 200 lots could be denied final approval under the planning commission's new policy.
Having declared a moratorium on all final plan approvals in districts with crowded schools, the planning commission is looking to the county and the school system for a quick resolution.
Commission Chairman Dennis P. Bowman, who led the moratorium effort when he advised the commission to deny approval for the 50-lot first phase of a development near Westminster, has recommended that school boundaries be redrawn to alleviate crowding.
That solution does not sit well with school officials, who say that ,, under no circumstances would they advise the school board to redraw district lines to accommodate developers.
"While this may have been an appropriate action, the commission has allowed the process to proceed to the last possible minute," said a school official who asked not be identified.
At least two planning commission members -- Thomas G. Hiltz and David T. Duree -- also disagree with redistricting based on the needs of developers.
"Some of our suggestions are not going to work," said Mr. Hiltz, a frequent critic of Mr. Bowman.
"We need to focus on what we can control. Part of the problem we've gotten into is tied to second-guessing the school board's determinations. I don't think we should get involved in where they draw district lines." The affected areas are served by four elementary schools in the Eldersburg area, two in Westminster and one in Hampstead.
The schools have been rated inadequate -- above 105 percent of capacity -- or approaching inadequate -- between 100 percent and 104 percent of capacity -- for more than a year. Yet, development in those areas has been allowed to proceed, records show.
A tougher line
The ban instituted last week means only that the commission will not allow developers of projects with four or more units to record lots. It does not apply to developers of projects with three or fewer lots or to the hundreds of lots already recorded but not yet developed. Although the county's adequate public facilities ordinance gives the planning commission the option to halt final plan approvals if public services are deemed strained, the commission, until now, has not exercised that option.
Such a flexible adequate facilities ordinance is rare, especially in the metropolitan area.
Last week's move in Carroll might have signaled a willingness on the part of the planning commission to make the adequate facilities ordinance more rigid.
"The more subjectivity in the process, the less credible your position is," Mr. Bowman said.
The county commissioners hailed the planning commission's decision, saying the time was right for such a moratorium.
The commissioners have asked members of the county's planning staff to prepare a report that will show the status of all development in areas served by the crowded schools. That report is expected this week.
"We have a critical situation here," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell.
"I almost don't want to say this, but we may have to tell developers that if they want to build here, they'll have to provide the schools. We, as a county government, have to make both ends of our budget meet."
Last week marked the first time a moratorium on development had been ordered in nearly seven years.
In 1988, as now, the planning commission decided it had to do something concerning crowded schools -- about 80 percent of the county's 16 schools were deemed inadequate at the time. The situation was most acute in schools near Westminster, Eldersburg and Hampstead.
The 1988 moratorium -- which lasted from August until the end of October -- put the development of almost 9,000 houses on hold.
Bolstered by lobbyists for the county's 5,000-employee construction industry, county commissioners agreed to $31 million in school construction and millions of dollars in upgrades to water and sewer systems that were already strained.
A brief moratorium?
The current moratorium also might be short-lived.
The building industry -- which says it has 2,860 employees in the county and pumps more than $107 million worth of taxes, fees and payrolls back into the county's economy -- undoubtedly will let the commissioners know of its displeasure.
And several members of the planning commission -- most noticeably Mr. Bowman and Robert N. Lennon, a real estate attorney -- also want to find a way to lift the ban.