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Task force votes to continue work on facilities law

The majority of the members of a task force looking at changing the county's adequate public facilities law to ease crowding in public schools rejected a suggestion that they end their work.

Frank F. Hertsch, who represents the homebuilding industry, made a motion to adjourn the nine-member commission at its meeting Thursday evening. Peter Gutwald, manager of the comprehensive planning division of the Department of Planning and Zoning, seconded it.

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However, the task force voted to continue.

The group was established in March after County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie proposed legislation to shut down preliminary approval of new housing projects in school districts where schools were crowded.

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Task force member Deb Merlock of the Harford County Council of PTAs insisted that the group have at least one more meeting, during which she is expected to recommend adjustments to the adequate public facilities (APF) bill that was introduced in the County Council this month.

Merlock said she would submit an amendment to lower the percentage of overcapacity in a school that is used to trigger a halt in preliminary housing approvals. Under the current law, enacted in 1991, a moratorium of preliminary approvals is triggered in any school district in which a school reaches 120 percent of its designed enrollment capacity.

The council bill would reduce the percentage to 115 percent. Merlock wants to lower it to 110 percent. She said the proposed legislation does not reflect the views of the task force.

Thursday's session generated the most heated debate of any meeting of the group.

Task force member Valerie Twanmoh of Friends of Harford Inc. a grass-roots group that monitors quality-of-life issues, said, "115 percent was not low enough."

When asked by County Council President Robert S. Wagner, the group's moderator, what the number should be, she responded: "110 percent."

Twanmoh said she also wants to include about 6,000 homes that have preliminary approval in the calculation used to determine the future capacity of schools.

She said any new legislation should not be "written in stone." She wants the establishment of a group, made up of the Board of Education, the school system, the Department of Planning and Zoning, the homebuilding industry and perhaps Friends of Harford to examine the APF law each year and make adjustments as needed.

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"We haven't made adjustments to APF since it was first written," Twanmoh said.

County Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, also on the task force, suggested that the county retain the old Aberdeen High School building once the new school adjacent to it opens next year. He said it could be used to ease the crowding at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air.

After the meeting, he said that such redistricting has never been popular with parents or school officials.

In response to a statement by Mark M. Wolkow, who represents the school board on the task force, Slutzky said the council is moving to come up with new sources of funding to pay for school construction.

The council has met with the county legislative delegation to come up with new school funding sources during the General Assembly session that opens in January. The delegation will seek legislation allowing the county to impose an impact fee or excise tax on new homes, raise the transfer tax and repeal a $30,000 transfer tax exemption for owner-occupied residences.

"We need to do something to solve the problem," said Hertsch. "If there is a dedicated fund for school construction, there won't be a hesitation to build schools. That's the way to solve the problem."

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He said shutting down home construction would do little to ease the crowding that has reached 130 percent of capacity at some schools and is expected to get worse.

Wagner said that a halt in home construction also could cut into a funding source to build schools.

In what likely will be its last session, the task force is scheduled to meet Friday on amendments to the bill being considered by the council.

Also during Thursday's meeting, Andy Andrews, an economic specialist with American Farmland Trust, told task force members that residential development in Cecil County required $12 million more in services than the homes paid in taxes last year. Andrews said the study included single-family homes, apartments, condominiums, trailer parks and farmhouses.

A study on Harford County would not be completed for another two weeks, he said, adding that he could not assume that Cecil County findings reflect what is happening in Harford.

During the meeting of the task force Aug. 21, Anirban Basu, head of Optimal Solutions Group, told members that the weighted cost of a new home in Harford County was $222,750.

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Basu said economic activity generated by home purchases and workers living in these homes more than paid for the cost of services.


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