Howard County school board members think the county government sometimes fails to communicate plans for future residential developments, hindering its preparations for future school buildings and redistricting.
Courtney Watson, a board member who is running for County Council as a Democrat, said the board tried two years ago to reserve a school site at Turf Valley, a major mixed-use development planned along U.S. 40 in western Ellicott City, but succeeded only recently because of what seemed to her a silly bureaucratic mix-up.
She also said school officials were oblivious last year to behind-the-scenes talks between the county and owners of Doughoregan Manor, the Carroll family estate, about potential development there, even as the board made decisions about redistricting and classroom additions in the area. No formal plan for Doughoregan has been proposed.
Under county law, the board can ask county government to reserve enough land for a school in a proposed development, but then must negotiate later to buy the property if the need becomes real. An elementary school typically requires about 20 acres, school officials said.
"We're putting a more concerted effort into long-term planning," said school board chairman Joshua Kaufman at a meeting Wednesday between board members and the County Council. "We're working 10 years out."
Kaufman said the board requested last week that land be reserved for a new elementary school in Columbia's Town Center, where redevelopment is being planned.
Watson said "the board tried to reserve a site two years ago in Turf Valley, but we were turned down because I sent the letter to the Planning Board." It was supposed to go to Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, even though McLaughlin gets the Planning Board's mail. The board eventually did get a site reservation at Turf Valley about six months ago.
"A year-and-a-half went by. There's a disconnect. We continue to see it," said Watson, who served as school board chairman for two years before Kaufman took over in December.
"That's very frustrating to me," said council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who is running for county executive. Merdon said he has heard that complaint for the eight years he has served on the council, but noted that county planners answer to the county executive, not the council.
McLaughlin said after the Wednesday meeting that the board's original letter on Turf Valley came during the second phase of comprehensive rezoning, called Comp Lite. The planning board considered the request for a change in the development plans for Turf Valley in the context of all the issues involved in that process, she said.
"I wasn't pursuing it as a request for a [school site] reservation," McLaughlin said.
County Executive James N. Robey said he speaks with school board members frequently and was unaware of complaints about a lack of communication with his administration.
"If that was a concern, why wasn't it brought to my attention? This is the first I've heard of it," Robey said.
During the meeting, Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat running for county executive, said the changes to comprehensive rezoning that he and fellow council Democrats Guy Guzzone and Calvin Ball announced Tuesday could help.
Their plan is to do away with the once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning and adopt a bill next month to divide the county into several smaller planning areas. Instead of waiting for zoning change requests from landowners and developers, a separate master plan would be created for each community area in successive years, starting as soon as next year. Ulman has called it "community-driven planning rather than developer-driven planning."
That way, he said Wednesday, the county could incorporate infrastructure needs into planning for each area.
Watson seemed skeptical. "I'm not sure that's what's needed," she said.
Western County Republican Charles C. Feaga also criticized the Democrats' proposed zoning reforms, warning that too much community involvement could lead to "zoning by plebiscite."
Merdon said that during the Comp Lite process, he asked David Drown, the school system's enrollment planner, to sit in on council sessions to better keep school officials informed about development. "We need to focus on it a bit more," Merdon said.