Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo had no sooner unveiled her proposal to stop development around crowded schools and congested roads than County Council members, civic activists and business leaders began poring over the plan to see whether it would work.
Quick judgments on Bobo's proposal, called an "adequate public facilities" ordinance, were difficult to come by, chiefly because it relies heavily on technical language describing how developers would measure road and school conditions and what they would have to do if they wanted to build in a crowded area.
"The concepts seem fine, but you have to wander through what I call the mathematical mazes to see how they really work," said council member Angela Beltram (D-District 2).
Take, for example, the provisions for denying development in areas near crowded schools. The law defines an "overcrowded school" as one that exceeds capacity, even if it is by just one student.
To determine whether a school is crowded, the proposed measure says, a residential developer would have to take into account existing enrollments, projected increases based on already approved projects in the area, and enrollment generated by the project that the developer wants to build.
That might sound complicated enough, but a special school facilities manual also sets out which schools a developer must look at by using a formula for measuring the time and distance it takes to get to the schools. The formula is different for elementary, middle and high schools.
Bobo, a Democrat, said the formula was developed to get around earlier suggestions that developments be judged on enrollments within school districts, a policy that would have had school officials setting county growth policy whenever they redrew school boundaries.
But Beltram, who originally proposed the district test, said Bobo's system could present its own problems. As now conceived, a developer's site could fall within the reach of several elementary schools, allowing the developer to add up the capacity at all the schools and average the impact of new construction, Beltram said.
"You might end up with some schools that are still overcrowded," she said.
The proposal's advocates respond that school officials would probably route children to the school that is least crowded.
Charles Ecker, a former school administrator who is running for county executive, said the formulas also might be lacking because they do not take into account the fact that enrollment is declining at some schools.
"I think we might find ourselves building too many schools and having to close some," said Ecker, a Republican.
Republican Gil South, a businessman who also is running for county executive, questioned why developers are not being asked to contribute more than land when they want to build near crowded schools.
The Bobo proposal would require that developers provide only land for a school.
"Why should the taxpayers foot the bill to build it?" South asked.
The county needs land more than money right now, said Joseph W. Rutter, deputy director of the county's Planning and Zoning Office.
"We can't spend the money if we don't have a site," he said. "We think the sites will become harder to find as the county grows."
South also said residents would not stand for Bobo's road congestion test.
Bobo's proposal would stop development if roads within two miles of the project or two major intersections, whichever is nearer, fall below a level of service known as D on an A to E scale. County officials and the state highway department considers a D level of service adequate, even though it means some congestion during the rush hour.
"I don't think the citizens of this county will tolerate D-level service," South said.
All five council members sounded optimistic about the plan's chances. But they said they will reserve final judgment until after Aug. 17, the deadline Bobo set for public comment before sending the bill to the council.
Members also want to wait to see the entire bill. County planners have yet to devise a point system spelling out what developers would have to do if they wanted to build near congested roads. The point system would assign negative points for congestion problems and positive points for promised improvements. Developers would have to make enough improvements to more than offset the negative points they accumulate.
"I think that's a big question mark right now. How that point system works will determine how tightly or loosely we will regulate development," said Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass (D-District 1).