Crowd test for schools may widen; Citizen panel edges closer to decision; no vote taken; Meeting set next month; Move could cause middle schools to be capacity barometer


A Howard County citizens committee last night edged closer to recommending a middle school crowding test for new home development, though a final vote was postponed until next month.

In a key vote, the committee appointed last year by County Executive James N. Robey unanimously agreed to recommend a change in the way development can be limited - using county planning districts instead of school district boundary lines.

In that way, committee members and Joseph W. Rutter Jr., county planning director, said the law would regulate developers based on the adequacy of all public facilities within that planning district.

Currently, the county's law covers only elementary schools and limits development by elementary school district.

"The positive side is you have a standard region that won't change," said Maurice Kalin, associate superintendent of county schools. One complaint about the current law is that the school board often changes school district lines. Planning district lines don't change, however.

But the committee - often debating individual motions despite unanimous support for them - ran out of time before a vote could be taken on whether to recommend having a middle school test. A uniformed guard ushered the 14-member group out of the county's Gateway building at closing time, 10:30 p.m.

One item that sparked long debate was the threshhold for limiting development around crowded middle schools, if a test is recommended. The committee voted 13-1 to recommend 115 percent of capacity - the same level as elementary schools.

David Berson, committee chairman, said the votes last night do not mean the committee eventually will approve a middle school test despite earlier rejections, but he conceded that the group seemed to be moving slowly in that direction.

The next, and final, meeting was tentatively scheduled for July 10.

Howard's 8-year-old Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance limits new homes around elementary schools that are over 120 percent of capacity.

Community residents who are worried about middle school enrollments that are expected to peak in 2007 want the law extended to cover middle schools. But county officials have argued against it on the grounds that such a test might be unworkable and could close down too much of the county to development.

That, in turn, could hurt revenues. Robey, a Democrat, argued that if middle school crowding becomes a problem, there will be time to address it when it occurs. But Republican Councilmen Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City, and Allan H. Kittleman, of the western county, want the middle school test now to prevent problems.

Since last year, the committee has twice since recommended not including middle schools under the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, only to be asked to consider the option again. Members were to take a longer look this time and report back to the county council by August.

The County Council approved a bill in March strengthening the existing law in three minor ways by:

* Lowering the threshold that triggers a ban on new development from 120 percent to 115 percent of elementary school capacity.

* Extending the traffic-congestion test applied to intersections near planned subdivisions from one mile to 1.5 miles.

* Limiting to 300 the number of new homes allowed in a school region that is operating at more than 100 percent of capacity.

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