Bethesda, Md., building moratorium may end

(Courtesy Of Patricia-b. O'neill)
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By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010

Six months after a building moratorium took effect in Bethesda, the Montgomery County Planning Board is poised to end it Thursday, opening the way for more development in one of the county's most densely packed areas.

If the Planning Board votes, as expected, to lift the moratorium, the commissioners will be following the lead of the County Council, which agreed in November to shift money from construction reserves to free up about $27.5 million for new classrooms in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster of schools, and in parts of Germantown served by Northwest and Seneca Valley high schools.

The moratorium, required by county law when school crowding reaches a tipping point, had sparked dismay among business leaders and Montgomery officials who said it harmed the county's image, impeded efforts to attract businesses and jobs and was illogical because the county is promoting smart growth near public transit in Bethesda but then preventing growth there.

Opponents of the ban also said it unfairly targeted new development, even though neighborhood turnover, a baby boom and migration from private to public schools contribute to school crowding in Montgomery.

It's not clear how much new development was held up by the ban, because the economic slowdown had stymied the construction industry and slowed development applications across the region. Patrick O'Neil, incoming chairman of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, said the moratorium, nonetheless, "sent a bad message."

"It really was elevating by law one public policy over another, school capacity over smart growth and transit-oriented development," he said. He lauded the decision by political leaders to tweak the calculations for school construction to end the moratorium.

County Board of Education President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) cautioned that the fight for funds for new classrooms has only just begun.

"We have submitted a robust capital improvement budget that meets the schools' needs, not just the paper needs for the purpose of lifting the moratorium," she said. "The proof will be if the council fully funds the budget.

"We can't be playing games," she said. "We want it fully funded to take care of the children's needs, not the developers' needs."

The council's decision to allocate the money now, on paper, will make it difficult, though not impossible, for lawmakers to later reject spending on bricks and mortar, which they will examine during budget debates in spring.

Gloomy economic conditions, the prospect of limited state aid to schools and lower-than-expected tax revenue also will affect funding. The council's decision to allocate funds in November for Bethesda and Germantown schools came at the same time that the county government began exploring ways to trim more than $100 million from its current $4.47 billion spending program and plug a shortfall officials have estimated could reach $608 million this year.

Craig Brown, a Chevy Chase parent and PTA cluster coordinator who has been active in efforts to persuade the school system to renovate Rock Creek Forest Elementary School, said he hoped lawmakers would ensure funding for new classrooms, despite the tough economy.

"Regardless if they lift the moratorium, we have a capacity problem now," he said.

He said lunch hour is so crowded at Rock Creek Forest that students are sitting on the stage in the all-purpose room because there is no room at tables. Other parents tell similar stories at other elementary schools in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster, where in some cases the schools are serving almost twice as many students as the buildings were designed to handle. Offices have been converted to classrooms, and the blacktops are crowded with "temporary" classroom trailers that remain for years.

The school system also is confronting crowding in Clarksburg and in part of the mid-county served by Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. The system has proposed adding classrooms in those areas as part of its overall $1.5 billion, six-year capital budget proposal.

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