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Bill seeks to curb housing starts

Legislation is expected to be introduced at Tuesday's County Council meeting that would reduce the school enrollment figure that triggers a mandatory halt to new housing construction in crowded neighborhoods. The bill would tighten Harford's adequate public facilities laws that were enacted to manage growth in the county.

Under the proposed bill, preliminary approval for new houses would be halted when enrollment at the elementary school serving the site was greater than 105 percent of the school's rated capacity or was projected to exceed 105 percent within four years.

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The current law calls for a moratorium on preliminary approvals when a school's capacity reaches 120 percent.

The proposed legislation would handle enrollment at middle and high schools slightly differently. It would stop preliminary approval of proposed developments in a school district when a middle or high school exceeded 110 percent of its rated capacity.

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It would also stop the approval process if a middle or high school was projected to top 110 percent within five years.

"This bill is more or less a compromise bill," said Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat who stirred public discussion in March when he proposed legislation to change the county's adequate public facilities laws pertaining to schools.

He later agreed to hold the bill until a county task force studied the impact of such legislation.

"I was looking at 100 percent," he said. "This is at least moving in the right direction. It's a start, maybe we can knock it down more in the future. We can look at this for a while and maybe address it again at a later date if we think it is necessary."

Guthrie expects at least four council members to sponsor the bill when it is introduced.

The proposed legislation also addresses the more than 6,000 residential units that already have preliminary approval but have not moved to the final-approval stage or into construction.

The bill proposes that when any school's capacity is projected to top 120 percent within five years, a moratorium would be imposed on all residential development in the area, including those units that have achieved preliminary approval.

"Before this bill, we couldn't touch those 6,000 homes in the pipeline," said Guthrie. "This could change that."

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"This would be a significant development," DeLane Lewis, a Fallston resident with two children in Fallston Middle School, said of the efforts to block construction of houses in the pipeline.

She was less enthusiastic about the bill's potential success through reducing the number of houses that would obtain preliminary approval.

"While dropping the percentage sounds good, the law would be basically the same, and it has been proven that it doesn't work," Lewis said. "If it did, we would not be in the situation we are in today."

She was referring to the crowding at Fallston Middle School. Although the school enrollment was nearly 130 percent of capacity at the end of the last school year, construction on new homes continues in the area. About 500 residential units in the Fallston area are still going forward because their developers had won preliminary approval well before the school's enrollment reached the breaking point.

Lewis said it is easy for developers to skirt the intent of the existing law by getting preliminary approval for houses years before they intend to build them.

Lewis and other parents have been filling council chambers in recent weeks insisting that the council address school crowding, which they say is affecting students' learning and safety.

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Guthrie said the bill will be introduced Tuesday, even though the nine-member task force studying changes in the adequate public facilities laws has not completed its work.

"The idea is to get something started," he said. "We can always amend the bill later."


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