After years of balking, Baltimore County officials appear ready to halt the construction of homes unless schools have room for additional students and builders set aside quality land for parks.
A proposed law backed by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and all seven County Council members would, for the first time, tie home construction to the availability of high school and middle school space.
Eleven other counties, including Howard, Harford, Carroll and Anne Arundel in the metropolitan area, tie home construction to adequate classroom space.
The bill, unveiled last night at a County Council meeting, would force developers to hand over flatland that could be used for ball fields, concerts or other activities, rather than the wetlands and sloping forests that are acceptable under existing requirements.
"For too long, we have received too many parcels we cannot use," said Victoria Gentile, chairwoman of the county's parks and recreation advisory board. "We definitely need this land within these communities."
The measure marks a significant political turnaround for Ruppersberger, a pro-business Democrat who previously argued that school construction plans would eliminate crowding by adding 9,402 seats.
Despite expected opposition from county builders and developers, the executive contends that future generations would benefit from tougher growth regulations.
County officials are in a rush to pass the regulations before the end of the year, the expiration date of an often-extended moratorium that in theory halts home construction in areas with crowded elementary schools.
The moratorium has had little impact, because developers are allowed to keep building if other nearby schools have enough room or if more classrooms are planned.
Initially, the practical effect of the regulations is likely to be limited. No county high school or middle school is considered crowded enough to trigger a ban on building.
The proposal doesn't address all growth-related concerns. County officials said they are working on tougher standards to ensure adequate roads, but those won't be ready for months.
The bill doesn't mention libraries, day care, medical facilities and other needs that accompany a growing population.
Michael H. Davis, a spokesman for Ruppersberger, and others say the proposals will ensure better planning, and will prevent future leaders from struggling to ensure public facilities keep pace with residential construction -- as has happened for most of the past three decades.
"My whole attitude was to be forward-looking and to help future administrations to not fall behind, as has been done in the past," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican, who has proposed a similar law. "We've been panting trying to play catch-up."
In 1996, Council President Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, proposed a so-called adequate public facilities bill, but it never received the executive's blessing.
Last year, Ruppersberger's election opponent, former Republican Del. John J. Bishop, also backed the idea. Again, Ruppersberger would have none of it.
McIntire offered an explanation for the change.
"I think there is a public demand for it," he said.
Ruppersberger believes he has successfully addressed crowding and can plan for the future, said Davis.
"If we did it at the beginning [of the administration], we would have shut the whole county down," he said.
Davis said the turnaround has no connection to Ruppersberger's potential run for governor in 2002, when a tough stand against developers would presumably look more attractive to voters in the Washington suburbs.
If Ruppersberger wanted to score political points, "he would have done it before the last election," the spokesman said.
While Baltimore County has been keeping tabs on crowded elementary schools for nine years, the proposed law would toughen the standard and apply it to all grade levels.
An elementary school is considered overcrowded if it has 20 percent more students than capacity as measured by a county standard for counting seats.
A new law would switch to a generally more-lenient state standard, but would change the threshold to 15 percent above capacity.
Only one county elementary school is considered crowded under the current definition, but three more would be added under the proposed rule, officials said.
Ruppersberger aides have spent months on the proposal, trying to build consensus among council members, the construction industry and business groups.
It's unclear how successful they have been. Several observers said they could not comment on the plan because they had not seen it. Construction representatives did not embrace it.
David S. Thaler, a civil engineer, said he believes the building restrictions are unnecessary.
"The administration, in my opinion, has done an excellent job of anticipating overcrowding and funding new additions and schools," Thaler said.
He said the county should extend the school moratorium.
The county has acquired considerable parkland in the past several years, which it has not developed, Thaler said.
Tom Ballentine, a spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said he had not seen the bill, but he questioned its necessity.
"It is a growth management tool for counties that are growing fast," Ballentine said. "Baltimore County is coming to the end of its growth."