Tighter growth control mulled


Adequate. Public. Facilities. Ordinance. Committee.

Take five of the most boring words in the English language, put them together - and you end up with a group that has the potential to shape the future of Howard County. The subject matter might seem dry, but millions of dollars - and the quality of education in Howard County - could be at stake.

The 8-year-old Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance regulates growth to ensure that it doesn't overwhelm county roads and schools. The law limits new construction in areas of the county where roads and elementary schools are overburdened. Since last month, the APFO committee has been discussing whether to include middle schools in the law, too.

Some say it would help schools.

Others say it would hurt developers - not to mention the county, which receives tax dollars from new growth.

The committee, which meets at 7:30 tonight at Gateway Center, hopes to make a decision before the month is over.

"This is not about stopping growth at all," said Courtney Watson, a committee member and the mother of three young children. "This is just about making sure we don't overload these schools."

But committee member Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county's planning and zoning department, warned against slowing growth too much.

"If you shut down the whole county and lose that revenue source," he said, "you are in deep trouble."

Most counties in the state - including Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George's - consider the enrollment of not only elementary schools, but middle and high schools, too.

Earlier this year, the Howard County Council asked the committee to discuss the option of including middle schools here. With elementary school populations set to peak in 2004, county officials are anticipating middle schools peaking in 2007.

David Berson, chairman of the committee, said he expects a close vote. He said the committee, which consists of developers, county employees and citizens, seems split on the issue.

But Watson said most committee members don't have children in school, and since the committee needs a two-thirds vote to approve including middle school enrollments in the law, she's not optimistic the vote will pass.

Until last week, Berson said, the committee meetings were somewhat tame. But last week, someone brought up redistricting - always an emotional topic in a county where some of its schools are perceived to be much better than others - and the conversation took on a more lively tone. Committee member Barbara Cook, county solicitor, said it makes no sense that Clarksville Middle School should be over capacity while a nearby Columbia school, Harper's Choice Middle, isn't full. Rather than put limits on development, she said, the county should solve crowding by, for example, busing Clarksville pupils to Columbia.

John Taylor, past president of the now-defunct Howard Countians for Responsible Growth, vehemently disagreed with that suggestion. He said citizens buy a school when they buy a house and have a right to put their kids in the public school of their choice.

"We do owe stability and predictability to citizens as well as to other interest groups," he said.

Some at the meeting questioned whether curtailing new housing would do any good, since much school growth comes from the resale of homes.

Rutter called new development "a very convenient whipping boy" for politicians because it affects people who aren't here and don't vote. Nevertheless, he said he hopes the committee does recommend a middle schools test - if only to prevent the Howard County Council from doing it on its own. "They just might do something really stupid," he said.

Watson supports the middle-schools test for a different reason. She believes new homes can contribute to substantial crowding - and pointed to Lime Kiln Middle School as an example. She said the school would receive children from the proposed Iager farm development - which could mean hundreds of new students in one year.

"You could easily overwhelm that school," she said.

"If we had a middle schools test, that would stop that as soon as it was recognized," she said. "It doesn't stop the development, it just slows it down to give the school system time to adjust."

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