Howard County builders will have to put their development plans on hold until October because of a delay in getting more-accurate school enrollment projections, the key to Howard's complex system of development controls.
The projections usually are available in May so that the council can vote in July. This year, because a consultant was hired, the numbers will not be ready until July, and the council, which does not meet in August, will not vote until October.
To avoid confusion, the Robey administration has decided to wait for the more-accurate numbers the consultant is preparing. The delay in the council vote will also delay from July to October the release of allocations for about 1,500 new homes in 2004.
Some residents think consistently low enrollment projections have allowed faster development in Howard, forcing the county to play catch-up by constantly shifting school district boundaries and by spending millions of extra dollars on school construction to relieve crowded classrooms.
The inaccurate numbers have robbed the law of the predictability it was supposed to bring to residents and developers.
"Am I upset that the numbers have been wrong all along? You bet," said County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "Until we get the right numbers with the reliable methodology, waiting a couple of months is just a couple of months," he said. Eleven of Howard's 37 elementary school districts are closed to development for 2003 because of crowding.
Some builders are upset for different reasons.
"It's a major problem. You figure out what the interest is for three months on a lot of money," said Donald R. Reuwer Jr., one of the county's most active developers. "You miss a whole construction season."
County officials said the delay should not be a major problem for most builders because about 100 allocations for new homes remain available in the western county for 2003.
If the consultant confirms the findings of the head count conducted in the fall by parents at Pointers Run Elementary, which found the school with hundreds more prospective pupils than predicted, the western county could be closed to development from 2004 until 2006, when an elementary school is to be constructed.
"The only thing the school system has right now is the same information they had last year," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director.
To use those figures when more-accurate ones are just around the corner seemed unwise to a citizens advisory committee, Rutter said. The group recommended waiting after a meeting May 9, and County Executive James N. Robey agreed Friday.
"Until we have numbers we were comfortable with, we didn't want to go ahead," said Rosemary Mortimer, PTSA president at Atholton High School and chairwoman of the advisory committee. She said the six members at the meeting concluded that "if we do anything too precipitous, it would be foolish."
Developer Rob Moxley, a partner in Security Development L.L.C., which has projects pending in several parts of the county, said, "I concur it is more important to have it right than to have a stopgap measure.
"A delay in time is almost always a delay in value," he said, adding that an alternative appears unlikely.
Under county law, when it is predicted that elementary and middle schools that serve an area will be at more than 115 percent of capacity in three years, development in that area is halted until the crowding problem is solved.
Until officials know how crowded the schools will be, they don't know whether the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance should be invoked.
The ordinance is not an issue in most of Columbia, because schools in the 34-year-old planned town are generally not crowded.