The Prince George's County Council, faced with mounting fiscal problems, is casting a covetous eye at $76.3 million of undeveloped land the school board is holding for schools that may never be built.
"We have to get at the value of the land, and get it back onto the tax maps for the benefit of the country," said Council member David Hartlove.
The Council recommended in a resolution passed Feb. 15 that any new school site selection include a review of sites on reservation as well as sites presently owned but undeveloped in the potential school need area. Land the school board no longer needs could be released to the county for sale or for other county uses.
The general intent of the resolution, Hartlove conceded, was to put the school board on notice that the Council wants them to let go of properties not needed for new buildings in the future. However, there seemed to be little prospect of any immediate release of school land.
The school board owns 89 sites in the county with an assessed value of $76,353,911, none of which is on the tax rolls. Juch of this land was purchased during the economic boom of the 1960s through what James G. Panor, assistant in pupil accounting and school planning calls "opportunity buying. We could get a parcel of land free or at a low, low price, and we took the opportunity to purchase sites with the direction that we would need it when development began."
However, sewer moratoriums, a sluggish housing market and a general period of lower growth in the county in the 1970s has reversed the need for new schools, and the county government sees that unused land as a potential boon to the taxpayer.
County Executive Winfield Kelly sees some of the land as surplus property. "I imagine that 25 to 50 per cent of the property is no longer needed by the school board. We have to watch and be very careful about sales, but the school board should study these sites and put them back on the tax roles."
Last December, School Supt. Edward J. Feeney recommended that some schools in eight sections of the county should be closed because of a lower student population in those areas combined with tighter budget restrictions.
Some of the areas suggested by Feeney for school closings are dotted with school sites woned by the board. In one area alone, the Tantallon-Fort Foote-Forest Heights area, the board owns 12 sites totalling 185 acres and worth $1,770,912.
"The school board is heavy into the property business and shouldn't be," said Kelly. "Some of that land can't be used commercially because of its location in residential areas. But multi-use roles - libraries, social servces, recreation centers - could be found."
The school board acquires property through the master plan process, through zoning, or both, and by studying projected population studies, said Roy I. Parker, the school board's director of construction.
The Prince George's park and planning staff of Maryland National Capital Park and Planning is assigned a master plan for a development area by the county and, using projected pupil yield and home desity figures, defines school needs. The school board planners put undeveloped but owned property into the master plans and also reserve sites for potential schools.
The sites on reserve in the subdivision master plans may be given up by the school board at any time, and are obtained to provide the board with a centralized plot of land for a school before development has begun. Recently the school board has had to release several plots of reserved land because of lack of money to purchase them when development time came.
The Council sees the sale of undeveloped school sites as a way to help the money crucnh in the county by increasing property tax revenues. The school board sees the land as a good investement for county residents.
MNCPPC planner Tom Wilson said, "We think 20 to 30 years down the road. We don't want to have to go in later and get a bad piece of land.
"We do need to try and come up with a system that will reduce any surplus number of school sites we may have. The county has asked us to rethink how many schools will be needed in the long-term pace of development and devise a system for sites that should be disposed of."
Assistant Schools Supt. Elliott Robertson says the analysis of undeveloped school sites the Council wants is a long way off. "We can't do it unilaterally. It involves public hearings, park and planning, the county executive, the Country Council. Otherwise we'll have citizens all over us. We have to dispose of it in exactly the same manner to protect future populations."
At the time the resolution was proposed to the Council in February, Robertson mentioned some properties that the board could get rid of.
But as realtor Council member Hartlove said later about one of them, the Croom Settlement property, a 43-acre site near Upper Marlboro, "Robertson said that he 'doesn't feel that it's ready for sale.' Anything is ready for sale if you evaluate it properly."
Many persons involved in the school site selection process expressed a need for better methods of school site planning. The school site selection task force has issued a report approved by the Council and park and planning that would set down some guidelines for site selection. The report is currently being considered by the school board.
"All we've got to know is the status of the lands all on one map so we can see it with zoning, density, sewer allocaitons, and land use restrictions all there," said Panor. "Then all we have to do is add and substract."
Wilson added, "We have to look at the long-range benefit on the taxpayer. If we reserve sites in undeveloped areas in a reasonable length of time, that is better than if the taxpayer is faced with paying an increased rate at a later date.
"However, you find that if you sell a piece of property, once you relinquish the land for other development, you can never get it back. The school system is trying to be prudent and future-oriented. No one wants to gobble it up and then just sit on it."