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Agency faults schools strategy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A proposal to strengthen the law preventing construction of new homes near crowded schools in Baltimore County would have no immediate effect, but could cut off new building later this decade in the east-side neighborhoods where the county has made a multimillion-dollar redevelopment push, a Planning Department analysis concludes.

The department found dozens of schools that exceed Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder's proposed moratorium threshold this year. But because of loopholes in the old law, which are not addressed in his bill, new construction would not be halted near any of those schools.

And in the 2007-2008 school year, when county school enrollment is expected to peak, the planners concluded that the bill would cut off home building only in Towson, where there is little home construction; in the Hereford area, where council members are considering more restrictive zoning to slow development; and in Essex and Middle River, communities where the county has invested millions in hopes of sparking new development.

Baltimore County has had a law on the books for several years that is supposed to stop new residential development when a neighborhood school is at least 15 percent over capacity. But even though there are dozens of schools in that category, the law has not triggered building moratoriums in recent years because of loopholes.

Bartenfelder has proposed a bill that would drop the threshold to 5 percent, saying he wants a law that would have real impact. But others say that using the threat of a moratorium to address crowding panders to parents' concerns without making the difficult decisions required to solve the problem.

"I'm concerned with overcrowding, but if we're going to do a law or pass a bill or anything, let's do something that makes sense," said Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat and former Planning Board chairman. "This one doesn't make sense."

Bartenfelder said he is waiting for a briefing from Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller before deciding whether to change his proposal.

"My only interest is to try to help the situation that exists with overcrowding in the schools," he said. "Anything to make it better or stronger, I'm interested in."

One of his colleagues, Democrat Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat, is already talking about amendments to make Bartenfelder's bill more strict.

The bill doesn't change a provision in the current law that allows development to continue near a crowded school if an adjacent school is sufficiently under capacity. The presumption is that the school system could change district boundaries to even out enrollments.

That's something the school system has not often done and is not likely to do, said Rita Fromm, executive director of planning and support operations for the county schools. Changing boundaries is usually not a permanent solution to overcrowding in a school and it injects uncertainty into families' lives, she said.

School crowding has been one of the most prominent complaints of parents in the county in recent years, particularly in the growth areas around Owings Mills and White Marsh.

A report compiled last year for the Board of Education by DeJong & Associates found that high schools in the northeastern and central part of the county will be 850 seats short by the 2007-2008 school year. The report concluded that a new high school is needed to ease crowding in Perry Hall, Towson and other communities.

On the west side, New Town High School opened in August. It is the county's first new high school in a generation. Two years earlier, New Town Elementary School opened its doors with far more pupils than it was designed for. It remains hundreds of pupils over capacity. Both schools are in fast-growing Owings Mills.

The school system says it needs to build at least two more elementary schools and a middle school on the west side.

Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties all have adequate public facilities laws that cut off development around overcrowded schools, but none of them allows the exceptions Baltimore County's does.

Both the current law and Bartenfelder's bill require the county to not just cut off development but also to try to mitigate crowding, through additions, classroom trailers, new schools, redistricting or other means.

"The bill sets a standard that requires either redistricting or a huge increase in capital spending - it's not just a situation where you cut off development and that's it," said Tom Ballentine, government affairs director for the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "I don't think the public has shown much interest in redistricting or tax increases, and that's something that should be considered ahead of time."

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said through a spokeswoman that he has not taken a position on the legislation. But in a memo to the councilmen, Keller, the planning director, pointed out a number of limitations to using an adequate public facilities bill to address school crowding.

Much of the crowding, he wrote, is not the result of development bringing new children into the system, but of changes - such as full-day kindergarten, expanded special education offerings and smaller class sizes - that reduce school capacity.

In addition, many established neighborhoods are seeing a generational shift as older residents move out and young families with children move in, Keller wrote.

"Please note that the majority of schools that would be affected are located in areas that are not experiencing new growth and development," he wrote.

Bartenfelder's bill comes up for a vote in three weeks. So far, he has the support of Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat who has signed on as a co-sponsor. But others on the council have been critical of Bartenfelder's approach.

"The bottom line is, the issue is a little more complicated than just simply placing a moratorium on permits based upon school construction," said Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "What looks good on the outside doesn't always taste good on the inside."

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