The Charles County commissioners voted this week to allow construction of 452 housing units in major subdivisions during the next six months. The move continues a policy of limiting growth based on school capacities that some developers consider overly strict and some school officials say does not do enough to alleviate crowded schools.
The policy of restricting growth relative to school capacity began in the county in 1999, and the construction numbers are adjusted every six months to reflect school enrollment figures. In that first six-month period, 347 housing units were allocated, and by the first six months of this year that number had dropped slightly, to 342, county planning officials said.
In a meeting Monday, Charles Board of Education members and the commissioners discussed the policy and expressed concern about the rapid growth of the school system's enrollment, which finished the 2003-04 year with 25,610 students. Eight schools had more students than the maximum enrollment, or "core capacity," allows.
"We have some schools that are just so far over core capacity, it's ridiculous," said Margaret Young, the vice chairman of the school board.
New housing allocations are based on six high school attendance districts, including the new North Point High School. Young suggested that the policy could be revised to address the situation where individual elementary or middle schools are crowded, while the high school district as a whole has excess capacity.
"Something's got to be done," she said.
Commissioner Wayne Cooper (D-White Plains) said that about eight years ago there were about 300 to 350 new enrollments in Charles County schools each year. Last year, there were more than 950 new students.
"It's almost like a school per year that we're generating with our growth, and there's no way . . . that we can ever build a school per year," said Cooper, a former school board member.
While the commissioners increased the new construction allocations for the upcoming six months, the allotment still does not satisfy the demand from the building industry and home buyers. There are about 3,000 lots that have been approved for construction but are stuck on a waiting list for building permits until school allocations are available.
"Our preference would be for no cap [on new construction] because we believe in free enterprise," said Chuck Ellison, the president of the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association. Ellison said that since the number of allocations varies from year to year, it is difficult to organize upcoming projects.
"It affects the communities, too. If I have a community of 100 homes, and I can build according to the market, I can move through them relatively quickly," he said. "If I can only build 15 homes, those people are going to live with construction for a lot longer time."
To some officials, the fact that the town of La Plata has not operated on the allocation system means that it is difficult to control new growth and school crowding county-wide.
County officials said about 25 percent of new construction in the county is occurring in La Plata, an incorporated municipality with its own planning and zoning powers. "If nothing happens, the growth in the town will consume all of the allocations in the high school districts," said commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large).
To address this situation, town officials have decided to adopt a municipal school allocation policy later this summer, said Town Manager Doug Miller. For many years, he said, La Plata grew at a rate of 45 to 60 new homes per year, and "Charles County did more building in 20 days than we did all year long."
"That's changing a little bit. Last year we issued 206 permits, and we have some big projects out there," Miller said. He said the new policy move was initiated by Town Council member Roy G. Hale, who decided that "to overcrowd the schools would be irresponsible," Miller said.
Besides restricting residential development, the county also has an active school construction program that tries to keep pace with growth. In addition to North Point High School, which will open in August 2005, a 900-seat middle school has received planning approval from the state and a new elementary school has also been committed.
Still, the growth, with the possibility that state funding for school construction could be cut substantially in upcoming years, has some officials worried.
"In the short term, three to four years, we're on a pretty good track," Levy said. "In the long term, we're not."