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Development issue at hand in Balto. Co. Crowding in schools feared as moratorium on building ends Nov. 1; 'Have solved the problem'; Ruppersberger says bond issue better resolves problem

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was 1990, and Baltimore County got tough on development for the sake of the children. Whisked into legislation was a moratorium on homebuilding in neighborhoods where elementary schools were severely crowded.

Among those pushing the legislation: then-council Chairman C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III.

From day one, homebuilders felt unfairly singled out, and the business community pressed to end the moratorium.

Now, six years later, the county Chamber of Commerce is poised to declare victory. And its thanks and praise are being heaped upon the same Ruppersberger, now the county executive and a strong force behind a move to abolish the moratorium -- and head off even broader development restrictions being backed by county PTAs.

The issues will come to a head in the next few months, as the moratorium expires, a huge school bond referendum nears, and council members consider more permanent restrictions likely to affect all schools.

As the moratorium heads for a Nov. 1 expiration, neither Ruppersberger nor the chamber sees a need for a new law that has been discussed as a replacement.

Such a measure, called an adequate public facility law in the jargon of bureaucracy, is common in Maryland counties as a way to ensure that development doesn't overrun roads, utilities and schools.

Its mission, outlined in a Maryland Office of Planning report, is to "rein in runaway development until facilities can be made adequate," with building approvals based on clearly defined capacity standards.

Baltimore County has no such law for schools. And other than the moratorium -- which applies only to elementary schools with enrollments that are 20 percent or more above capacity -- county zoning regulations include no reference to the provision of adequate school facilities.

To that, Ruppersberger says he has an answer: a $90 million school bond referendum on the November ballot.

It's far and away the largest school bond issue in county history, and the executive and business groups say it will trigger enough construction to ensure that county schools do not become overcrowded. Hence, they argue, there's no need for a moratorium or adequate facilities law.

"We have solved the problem," Ruppersberger declares.

Not everyone agrees. The Council of PTAs of Baltimore County, for instance, favors an adequate facilities law. And some County Council members say it's needed, though a vote has not been taken.

"I think there should be an adequate facilities law to deal with schools," says Democratic Councilman Vincent J. Gardina of Perry Hall.

"Exactly what the specifics would be, I don't know at this point."

The idea behind such laws generally is to require that developers' plans be examined for their impact on schools.

No development plan or building permit would be granted, for example, unless schools could absorb any additional students the construction might bring. If crowding threatened, the developer might include a donated school site in the plans, build a school addition or pay for renovation or a waiver fee.

Many say such a law would be a better long-term solution than the moratorium, put on the books as a short-term answer to crowded classrooms.

In the moratorium's six years, neighborhoods around 35 elementary schools have been affected -- including 25 areas where building was restricted at some point. Areas around 10 other schools were identified as at risk but never subject to building restrictions.

"The moratorium has been somewhat of a Band-Aid effect," says Maggie Kennedy, executive vice president of the PTA council. "And we certainly are supportive of and hope to see an adequate facilities ordinance put into place."

Yet Ruppersberger, pointing to the $90 million bond referendum, says, "I think we've done what we have to do to solve the problem."

For Ruppersberger, it's a telling episode in his campaign to strike a balance between business interests and schools.

On the one hand, his opposition to a facilities law or moratorium is a boon to business interests, from which he gets solid support. On the other, he has earmarked more cash for schools than any other executive.

"Years ago, there was a perception Baltimore County was too business-oriented and developers had too much control," he says. "Then the pendulum was starting to swing. And I got into office, and I'm looking for a balance."

A moratorium, Ruppersberger says, "would only exist when government hasn't done the job. The moratorium sends a bad message to Fortune 500 businesses that want to come to our county that we have not done the job. And a moratorium will literally scare people off."

As for vocal opponents of growth, he says, "Some of the people who complain about any growth at all are the same people that are demanding more teachers in the classroom and more police in the streets and want their potholes filled."

The issue came to the forefront three weeks ago, when he persuaded the County Council to shift an additional $23 million to the school bond issue, bringing the total to nearly $90 million.

A big part of the shift was to head off crowding in high schools, with the new money helping to add 3,000 high school seats.

"I can't think of anything the executive would have done that would be better for business," says Stuart D. Kaplow, an attorney representing the Chamber of Commerce. "It is positive in many, many ways. Not the least of which is if we're going to spend $90 million in school construction money, there is a tremendous opportunity for local businesses to work on those projects."

A review of election records shows at least 100 contributions from development companies, builders, contractors, Realtors and other construction interests to Ruppersberger since his 1994 campaign for county executive.

But Ruppersberger -- noting that fund raising is a way of life in politics -- brushes aside any connection between the contributions and his actions.

"You need to raise money in order to get your message out, but in no way will that ever impact me," the former prosecutor says.

He adds, "I'll always make what I think is the right decision."

Still, questions remain about the bond issue. For instance: County school enrollment reached 101,736 in 1995, the highest in nearly two decades. Still, the number is far from the highest ever -- in 1971, the county counted 134,042 public school pupils.

Though enrollment is lower, county officials say the ground rules have changed in 25 years, triggering the need for more schools and more space.

"The standards of education have gone up, and smaller classes are preferred," Ruppersberger says. "I feel very strongly that money needs to go into the classroom."

While the county seeks millions in new bond issues for schools, ** more than $266 million approved in bond issues from 1986 to 1994 remains unissued, according to county records.

The unissued money covers a smattering of projects, including streets, bridges, refuse disposal, community colleges -- and public schools. The county cannot shift money among categories -- from refuse disposal to schools, for example. And the county says the $48 million in school bond money listed as "unissued" from 1994 is earmarked for specific projects.

"My philosophy is, when it's authorized, let's move forward with it," Ruppersberger says of the new school bonds, part of a larger $138 million issue being proposed.

Though the county is rushing to build new schools, expand others and renovate more, 23 schools were closed as student enrollment dwindled to a low of 80,630 in 1986.

Some schools have reopened, but not all.

"That ended up being really poor planning," says Democratic Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder of Fullerton. "A lot of the

schools that were closed could have been used later."

Still, if history serves as a guide, the $90 million school bond issue will pass. Since 1986, school bond issues have passed by a margin of nearly 70 percent.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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