The Charles County commissioners have proposed local legislation that would allow builders to speed up stalled development projects by helping to pay for new schools and roads.
The legislation, for which commissioners voiced support at a meeting Monday, would authorize agreements between developers and the county that would permit projects to proceed if builders met infrastructure demands created by the developments.
The commissioners said the proposal was prompted by developers who have said they would be willing to pay for school construction, perhaps several million dollars, if they could be assured that their projects would move forward. Builders now must wait, sometimes years, until school capacity is adequate to accommodate a residential development.
About 3,400 housing units are waiting for the necessary school allocations in Charles County. At the same time, eight county schools are crowded beyond the maximum enrollment, and state money for school construction has become increasingly tight the past two years.
"The whole purpose of even going down this road was to give us more flexibility to address some of our infrastructure concerns that may be held hostage because of the state fiscal constraints," Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf) said. "We thought perhaps with an agreement such as this, that we could move forward on projects that would otherwise be held in abeyance."
Representatives of the development industry said they were pleased with the possibility of being able to buy more school allocations and speed up the building process.
"Builders need school seats to go forward, and the county needs more schools," said Thomas Tucker, associate director of legislative affairs for the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association. "It's a win-win on both sides."
Developers said it was unlikely that many would be willing to fund an entire school.
Charles County education officials estimate that a new elementary school that is scheduled to open in August 2006 will cost $19.4 million, and a middle school planned the year after that will cost $32.1 million.
The commissioners discussed the possibility of asking developers to pay from $10,000 to $20,000 for each housing unit they want to build.
"If you have a 50-unit development complex coming up -- 50 times $10,000 -- that's a nice chunk of cash that the county would receive . . . to build the schools," Tucker said.
During the past 20 years, 1,100 to 1,200 building permits were issued each year for new residential dwellings, planner Mary Grant said. But last year, 946 permits were issued. Fewer than 500 permits have been issued this year.
The commissioners said they want to protect the building industry and stop the decline in building permits.
"The biggest product we have to sell as of right now are fine homes, our residential communities," said Commissioner W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata). "If we can work out a way for that to proceed, then our economy will stay healthy here in Charles County."
Commissioner Wayne Cooper (D-White Plains) said he did not want the legislation to allow unbridled growth in the county. He said a cap on the increase in building permits might be necessary if the legislation passes.
But commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large) said the legislation would not bind the commissioners to enter into agreements unless they were comfortable with the terms. He also said the demand for such agreements would probably fluctuate with shifts in the economy.
"Right now, because the market's so hot, demand is so high and prices are rising so rapidly, this is very financially feasible," he said. "In a less robust market . . . absorbing that $10,000 [per housing unit] could be a much greater burden for a developer."
Thomas P. Allhoff, the chief operating officer of Bel Alton-based Somerset Development, called the legislation beneficial because an agreement could remove some uncertainty from building projects by arranging the conditions in advance.
Some of the builders on the school allocation list lost their place in line after the redistricting for the new North Point High School, he said.
"The development agreement, or capability to have it, really just gives you another alternative," he said.
"It allows for planning. That's all the building industry has asked for, for years."