The committee charged with evaluating Howard County's adequate public facilities ordinance will recommend that the county tighten limits on new residential development when area schools are crowded.

Currently, developers are delayed from building proposed homes when the area elementary school is filled to 120 percent of capacity--that is, one-fifth more students than the building can officially handle. The committee decided June 17 that it would suggest lowering that number to 115 percent.

County Executive James N. Robey (D) set up the 17-member panel--composed of Howard residents, business executives, county officials, PTA leaders, developers and community activists--in April to assess the original ordinance, which took effect in 1992. Robey is not bound by the committee's suggestions, which are due July 12.

In addition to the 115 percent cap, the committee agreed that in any region where collective elementary school enrollment is at more than 100 percent capacity, no single school's district should be permitted more than 300 new building units. There is no similar rule on the books now; the suggested change is intended to prevent growth from being distributed too unevenly.

In public hearings over the last month, several residents urged an over-capacity cap lower than 115 percent and also pushed for a rule that would link development restrictions to crowding at middle and high schools, not just elementary schools. As the elementary school population peaks in the next four years, that bulge of students will have begun secondary school.

But the panel put off such a decision and instead suggested that in 2002 the county reconsider whether to include a middle school capacity test. The problem, said Joseph W. Rutter, Howard County's director of planning and zoning and a committee member, is that geographically, the elementary and middle school regions don't match up. A test for schools' capacity in one region may affect building allocations in another region.

Parents also testified at the hearings that they hoped the ordinance could be revised to prevent not only crowding but also a perennial complaint: redistricting of students into, as one mother put it, "a district not our own." But some committee members said at last week's meeting that the ordinance was neither a panacea for shuffling students, nor for stopping development. "It was never designed to be a control on growth," said Maurice Kalin, the schools' associate superintendent for planning and support services. "It was designed to direct growth. There's a major philosophical difference."

Rutter agreed and said this week that for the most part, the ordinance has achieved its goal.

"In 1992, when APFO started, we had significant [school] enrollment exceeding capacity," he said. "In 1998, we had capacity exceeding enrollment. Isn't that the whole idea of adequate public facilities?"