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Anne Arundel County Council mulls bill to bypass some school capacity restrictions to expand workforce housing construction

If the coronavirus didn’t exist and the Anne Arundel County Council could have safely met in person tonight, the line for public testimony could have trailed out of the chambers, down the stairs and around the block.

Instead, by five hours before the virtual meeting, the council had already received about 400 letters in response to a bill that would exempt certain affordable housing projects from having to pass adequate school facilities tests, therefore opening at least five schools that are currently at capacity and allowing for more affordable housing to be built throughout the county.

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Instead of reading the letters into the record during the Zoom meeting, the council voted to post all the letters online after the meeting. Before Monday night, the highest number of online testimonies the council had received was 5 for any given meeting.

The controversial bill would exempt a workforce housing project from having to pass an adequate school facility test only if it was for fewer than 50 units, and if it was being funded through the state’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. Only two Anne Arundel properties were awarded the credit in 2018, and only one was selected in 2019.

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Primary sponsor Councilwoman Sarah Lacey, D-Jessup, said the bill was inspired by an affordable housing community slated for development in Jessup, her hometown. Brock Bridge Landing, a proposed 38-unit townhome community, and its developer Woda Cooper Cos. Inc., received the tax credit award in 2018. When Woda Cooper applied, all the necessary schools were open, but by the time the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development announced the winners, one of the necessary schools was closed, Lacey said. Progress was halted.

The bill would allow the proposed development — and others that also meet the conditions — to build anyway, by allowing them to exceed the county-determined School Utilization Chart school capacity limits by 3% for elementary and middle schools and 5% for high schools. This only applies if the schools were open when they had applied for the program or at the time the developer did the adequate public facilities test with the county.

The state designates the numbers that can fit in each school, and the county caps that at 95% for elementary and middle schools, and 100% for high schools. Lacey said this would allow elementary and middle schools to get up to 98% of state capacity, and high schools to get up to 105% of state capacity under the current School Utilization Chart.

Though she has the support of developers who specialize in this type of project, a small army of parents and other residents oppose it. Of the nearly 400 letters sent on the bill, 377 opposed and 10 supported it.

Some worry that a bill like this would “open the floodgates” for affordable housing development and overcrowd schools, said county Government Affairs Officer Pete Baron.

County Executive Steuart Pittman’s team worked with Lacey on three amendments to clarify and narrow the scope of the bill, though Baron said they are generally supportive of the effort.

One amendment would clarify that only Low-Income Housing Tax Credit properties would qualify for this exemption — not all workforce development properties — and another would require a deed restriction so that properties that take advantage of this exception wouldn’t be able to later be converted to market rate. All amendments passed.

Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, R-Arnold, shared the sentiment of concerned parents in a recent guest column in the Severna Park Voice. She referenced the school utilization charts, which were passed by the council, and questioned potential impacts on low-income students already enrolled at schools that “have to do more with less.”

“How does a council vote unanimously in favor of stricter capacity laws, and then create a loophole above that? Are we prioritizing the need for affordable housing over the burden on our schools, students, teachers and families? These are the considerations I am giving this bill,” Fiedler wrote.

Councilwoman Lisa Brannigan Rodvien, D-Annapolis, drew on her experience as a teacher in Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

“Given the choice, would I rather have a class that included one or two more students or would I prefer that students don’t have housing or continue to be housing insecure?” Rodvien said. " It’s not even a question, hands down I would rather see my students and their families get secure and reliable housing."

Councilwoman Jessica Haire, R-Edgewater, suggested another solution that would involve changing the timing of the adequate public facilities tests for the projects. Instead of doing the tests after the project had been granted the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, Haire suggested the test be conducted at the time the developer is applying for the program. In this proposed scenario, Haire said the seats in schools could be accounted for during the capacity discussions, and then could be freed if the project did not get into the program.

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This scenario may be discussed in a future workgroup of the Office of Planning and Zoning, said Planning Administrator Lori Rhodes.

Another bill pertaining to housing was introduced Monday night by Councilman Andrew Pruski, D-Gambrills, Rodvien, and Council Chair Allison Pickard, D-Glen Burnie, that would prohibit certain residential rent increases during catastrophic health emergencies.

In other business, the council passed a bill that would allow for speed monitoring systems to be used throughout the county and another bill that would amend the membership terms and duties of the Commission on Disability Issues.

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