A proposed law that could allow developers to fast-track building projects if they pay for school construction drew criticism this week from Charles County farmers and others concerned that too much agricultural land would be lost to intensified development .
If adopted, the "developer rights and responsibilities" legislation would authorize the Charles County commissioners to enter into special agreements with builders to allow projects to move ahead despite limits on development. For example, the commissioners said, a developer would avoid spending years waiting for school allocations -- a county process limiting the number of new homes allowed based on the availability of student capacity in nearby public schools -- if the builder help pays for new schools up front.
But some feel such development deals could open the door to unbridled residential growth in Charles.
"Creating a mechanism to bypass the allocation policy can have a huge impact on the rate of development in farming communities," Francis P. Wathen, president of the Charles County Farm Bureau, said in a written statement to the county commissioners. "We would hope that some consideration be given to innovative ways for saving additional farms as opposed to innovative ways to further development."
Since 1997, Charles has lost 33 farms and 4,600 acres of farmland according to the most recent agriculture census. Wathen said in an interview that the Farm Bureau didn't have any "pressing urgent problem" with the legislation but that "we felt anything that can slow down growth a little bit will probably keep more land in farms."
Commissioner Robert J. Fuller (D-St. Charles) also expressed reservations about the legislation Monday during a work session on the issue.
"I'm having some second thoughts about this process of allowing developers to buy their way off of the [school allocation] list," Fuller said. "My main concern is that we don't grow too fast."
But other commissioners insisted that the legislation would not speed up growth but rather allow the county to get more funding for infrastructure from what development does occur. Each new single-family home requires about $20,000 for school construction, county officials said. About half of that amount is paid by the homebuyer in the form of an excise tax. The other half has traditionally come from the state. But since state funding for school construction has decreased greatly in the past four years -- from close to $300 million in fiscal 2001 to about $125 million this fiscal year -- the county is looking for ways to replace the state's portion.
"So what we're saying to the developer is: 'You put the $10,000 [excise tax] on the house, and you give us another $10,000, and you sign an agreement that allows you to move forward," said county Board of Commissioners President Murray D. Levy. "It's not going to be additional growth. It's going to be growth that gives us all the money for school construction, not growth that gives us half the money for school construction."
Levy and others said the county should continue to issue residential building permits at the rate of about 1,000 to 1,100 per year. Last year, because of crowded schools, the number of building permits dropped to 946. And, in the first eight months of this year, fewer than 500 permits have been issued, planning officials said.
"It is clearly not the intent of this board to use this tool to speed up growth. We are slowly filling up our schools and overcrowding them," Levy said. "All we're trying to do is when a house is built, we want to get some money to build schools."
If developers pay for the impact each development has on the community by funding new schools, Levy said, then "they have satisfied their responsibility." Two developers have submitted draft agreements, Levy said.
"They're not buying their way off [the allocation list] in the sense of they're giving us a few dollars. What they're doing is, they are funding the total cost of school construction," he said.
A vote on the legislation was tabled at Monday's meeting, in part because Commissioners Al Smith (R-Waldorf) and Wayne Cooper (D-White Plains) were not present. Commissioner W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata) also said he was in favor of the legislation.
"We're going to use the money [from developers] to create space [in the schools]," Mayer said. "We're going to fulfill the infrastructure needs of the school system now, rather than wait until the state gets around to paying for it."