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Council delays bill linking schools, development

Anne Arundel County Council members delayed a final vote last night on legislation that could help to synchronize school construction and new residential development.

The legislation - created by county Planning Officer Joseph W. Rutter Jr. in an effort to unite school and county officials in the process of planning for school capacity and residential growth - was discussed, but by late last night no vote had been taken.

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Some council members worry that the legislation, which would limit the wait by developers to six years, could open the floodgates to new subdivisions near crowded schools.

Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican from Severna Park, had planned for another piece of legislation that could extend the life of the existing school capacity law by two years. If adopted, that legislation would have given the council more time to come up with a better way to balance residential growth and school construction.

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The county's current law, which prohibits new development in areas without available school capacity, is set to expire Oct. 24.

At a work session last week, Vitale and other council members expressed concern over the legislation proposed by Rutter's office.

Vitale said she worried that the school capacity formulas proposed under Rutter's measure - the county uses a state formula today, but under the proposed bill the school system would create its own formula - could still produce inaccurate enrollment numbers.

"It's the inaccurate counts that sets up a lot of the difficulties we hear about," she said.

Rutter has said he wants to create a permitting process for subdivisions that is more predictable. He had proposed a six-year waiting list for subdivisions in crowded school-feeder systems. At the end of that period, Rutter's legislation would allow developers to build new houses whether there is school capacity or not.

It is that scenario - a wave of new students at a school that has no open seats - that worries elected officials.

"I can think of 6,000 units in my district that would like to come on line," Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Democrat from Linthicum, said at the work session last week.

Beidle's district, which includes the Glen Burnie High School feeder system, is one of four in the county that is shut to new housing because of school capacity problems. Arundel, Broadneck and Northeast high schools' feeder systems are also shut.

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But it is that very situation that could cause serious legal problems for the county, said Deputy County Attorney David A. Plymyer, who also participated in the work session.

"This is not a pro-growth bill or an anti-growth bill," he said. "As we delay construction longer and longer, we need a school capacity ordinance that will withstand challenge in court."

Recently, an attorney for Winchester Homes of Bethesda, which had been blocked from building houses near Waugh Chapel Elementary School because of school crowding, demonstrated in court that the county's enrollment figures were incorrect and won his client the right to build the development.

Council members have compared Rutter's legislation to a school-capacity policy in effect in Howard County. Rutter was head of that county's planning and zoning department until about eight months ago when he was lured by Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Recently, the Howard County Council approved a new school enrollment chart that will limit development around crowded elementary and middle schools in 2006 - a chart that saw 13 variations over two months of wrangling before the final version was adopted.

In reviewing Rutter's bill, council members have said they don't want to duplicate Howard's system of pacing school construction and development.

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Rutter agrees. He told council members at the work session that his plan for Anne Arundel was "very, very different." His proposal for Anne Arundel calls for a six-year wait period; Howard's is four years.

Thomas Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said yesterday that developers in Howard County generally support that county's school capacity and development policy.

"It solidifies the commitment of the local government to provide school capacity," he said.


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