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Howard bill links housing, middle schools


A bill adding middle schools to a Howard County law limiting development around crowded elementary schools has been submitted for introduction before the County Council on Oct. 2.

The bill represents a victory for community and council advocates of such a test, which was opposed in two early votes by a citizens committee created to re-examine the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

"I think it was a big victory. I did not expect it to go through," said Courtney Watson, a committee member and a strong advocate for the test. "One of the things that helped was to see how much public support there was, and also on the County Council."

The committee recommended adding middle schools to the law July 19, after a way was found to make the test work. In the bill filed late Thursday, the county would switch from using school district boundaries - which often change - to using planning districts, whose lines don't change, as the basis for the law. That way, any elementary or middle school with enrollment more than 115 percent within a planning district would force a delay in submitting proposals for new home building for up to three years.

"The concern we had before was not whether one [middle school test] needed to be done, but whether one was legally defensible," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director. "This legislation as drafted resolves those issues" for him and County Executive James N. Robey, Rutter said.

Still, some committee members said the test won't be needed because, based on school system projections, middle school enrollments won't create enough crowding to trigger the development ban. Howard is planning a new middle school in the western county, to open in 2004.

"We spent a lot of hours going through all that. We never felt there was an overwhelming need for a middle schools test, but the argument that it might be more of a safety valve is really what came out of it," said William Waff, another committee member and North Laurel community leader.

Despite some doubts, the committee voted unanimously to recommend including middle schools in the law.

"I think it shows there's a broad consensus of the committee, which was broadly drawn from throughout the county," said David Berson, committee chairman. "It's worthwhile to have in case the projections are wrong."

County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said projections are often an issue.

"The problem is that the school system's projections aren't always accurate. It's very difficult to make projections," he said, adding that with redistricting a school's enrollment can change quickly.

The bill appears likely to pass because Guzzone and two other councilmen - a majority on the five-member council - have said they favor it.

"I'm very optimistic about the bill. I fully expect that we will have that middle school test. I think that's a great thing for the county," western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman said. Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, also favors the bill.

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