Finding the right balance for growth [Editorial]

Howard County Times

The Howard County Council continues to pare away at ideas for updating the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, a document to guide timing of development to minimize school crowding and assure there are decent roads, and transit networks, places for recreation and public safety.

The ordinance works in concert with zoning rules to prevent hodge-podge development and construction moratoriums.

In the nearly 40 years since the state legislature mandated public facilities plans, one recurring theme has emerged in growing counties – the formulas for deciding on adequate classroom space have been imperfect.

During this year’s public review process, school capacity tests remain in dispute. By setting stricter limits, the county can be forced to more aggressively fund new schools, or add portable classrooms, or look at drawing new district lines that usually require busing pupils to schools farther from their neighborhoods.

Solutions are often imperfect and if elected leaders make the wrong decisions, some schools can be left bulging at the seams, with others having unacceptable vacancy rates, both highly inefficient.

In this round of ordinance updates, the council has to consider tightening the school capacity threshold to prevent wild swings in different school clusters, but not freeze growth. At the same time, developers need to know that rules won’t put them in a financial straightjacket that would threaten the long-term viability of new housing, retail and office projects.

There are nearly two dozen amendments in the works, including one that could prohibit residential building if nearby schools are at their state-rated capacity. Such a cap is too inflexible and could stifle needed development.

Too often unfairly branded as greedy and controlling, developers don’t have an easy road: Evolving market conditions, such as the trend of a new generation buying smaller homes, and the financial climate, can make their business a risky crap shoot. The existing ordinance does a fair job of insuring adequate roads, water and sewer lines to handle growth.

The development of housing and business — be it for office, manufacturing or retail — expands the county’s tax base, which allows better schools and other quality-of-life amenities, such as parks, arts centers and libraries. The task before the council is to find a balance between allowing new development and maintaining adequate school enrollment numbers.

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