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School capacity issue up for debate

Faced with growing pressure from builders and the threat of future lawsuits, Anne Arundel County officials will debate an issue today that has bedeviled jurisdictions across the region: how to balance school construction and new housing development.

County Executive Janet S. Owens and Planning Officer Joseph W. Rutter Jr. want to come up with a more accurate way to calculate the number of open seats in local schools, while assuring developers that they would wait no more than six years to get the green light for a project, regardless of available seats.

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But their proposal, up for discussion at the County Council's meeting today, faces opposition from many sides.

Council members have called the plan ill-conceived because of the potential for a crush of development at the end of six years.

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Developers say that six years is too long to wait. And Board of Education members say that school construction should not be purely development-driven.

"I don't know what to do," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat, echoing the frustration of other elected officials.

She said council members also could decide to extend the life of the existing law, which is set to expire in December, to give them more time to wrestle with the issue.

"I want to be fair to developers. ... And I don't want to approve anything until it addresses our school capacity problems," she said.

Many jurisdictions in the Baltimore region are struggling to find a way to better coordinate new subdivisions and school construction.

Carroll County commissioners recently adopted a one-year building moratorium to give them time to study growth controls.

Harford County voted in June to impose a six-month building ban, but County Executive James M. Harkins rejected it. Baltimore County Council members imposed a multiyear building moratorium near crowded schools in the 1990s. It was later lifted.

Anne Arundel has been operating under a de facto homebuilding moratorium for several years.

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The county code prohibits building in areas without school seats, and five out of 12 school feeder systems are shut down to residential growth because of crowded schools.

Rutter, whom Owens hired to retool the county's planning department, has said the county can't continue denying subdivision permits without giving builders an idea of when they might have the school seats they need to move forward with their projects. He also has criticized the county's school capacity policy, which has used outdated enrollment figures to set capacity.

The county's system recently suffered a loss in court. Winchester Homes Inc. of Bethesda won the right to build new homes in Odenton because county officials acknowledged in court that they knowingly used incorrect enrollment figures in making their decision to deny the subdivision necessary permits.

"That's a pretty scathing indictment of the situation here," said Rutter of the court case, which was settled this summer.

He has told council members that they could face more lawsuits - and financial losses - if they fail to revise the county code to deal with school capacity problems.

Rutter said that 11 subdivision projects, with 87 units total, would be put on the waiting list immediately should the council adopt the administration's bill. More projects would be added as developers submit sketch plans.

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Planning officials could not state how many vacant residential lots exist in the county, so it is impossible to determine how many projects could be planned in the future.

Rutter worked with schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith to craft the legislation. The school board voted last month to endorse the proposal, but some members are concerned about the future of school construction in the county.

"I do agree that you can't just stick your head in the sand," said school board member Eugene Peterson, who, along with board President Paul G. Rudolph, voted not to endorse the legislation.

"But we need to be smart about how we do this. The next step would be some sort of county look at a growth policy. We haven't heard much about that."

Peterson worries that the school system will have to take money from other projects - perhaps those to repair aging schools - and use it for additions to schools in areas where developers are looking to build. He said he doesn't like the idea of building a school just because a new subdivision is in the works.

"Everything I hear about is construction, but we are designing a school system," Peterson said.

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Parents of school-aged children also have criticized the proposed changes.

"I think it is an ill-conceived bill," said Sam Georgiou, chairman of the Anne Arundel County Citizens Advisory Committee. "It basically gives any developer with any money the ability to buy a property and wait six years and get his school seats. It could be a disaster."

County officials also worry that one of several approaches being considered would effectively trigger a countywide building moratorium.

If that happened, elected officials would be forced to come up with millions of dollars to build new classrooms - and possibly new schools - when the six-year waiting period for developers runs out, a possibility that scares officials given the state's budget woes.

"One of the big stumbling points for this legislation, in my mind, is funding," said school board member Konrad M. Wayson. "We all know right now that funds for school construction are hard to come by. And it's not going to get any better to my knowledge."

Developers have also expressed anxiety over the legislation. Some have said that the six-year waiting period is too long. Others, including Karen McJunkin, a vice president with Elm Street Development of McLean, Va., have said that the school capacity problem in Anne Arundel County is so bad that a more drastic policy shift may be necessary.

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"I have a blase reaction to the legislation because I see no light at the end of the tunnel," said McJunkin, who is considering building age-restricted housing near Arundel Mills because the neighborhood school has no seats.

"The theory is that if you have a six-year wait you can get the funds to build new schools," she said. "But that's not possible in today's fiscal environment."

Like Samorajczyk, McJunkin is grasping for a solution and coming up empty-handed. "I honestly don't know what's the best solution," she said.


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