In the part of St. Mary's County that sends students to Leonardtown High School, there are 21 subdivisions moving through the approval process. Together they account for 1,960 new homes.
So as the new fiscal year started this month, and new money became available for school expansion projects, builders and local officials wanted to know how many of these homes would get the green light.
The answer brought to the Planning Commission on Monday night: 44.
Even though the expansion of Leonardtown Elementary School is moving forward, the 195 additional classroom seats created there will provide little relief until the county complies with the state's new mandates of smaller class sizes.
The result is that development around Leonardtown has ground to a halt.
For some, that would be good news. The number of building permits issued in St. Mary's has risen sharply in recent years, from 469 in 2001 to 1,361 last year. County building permit records dating to 1987 show no year surpasses the 2004 total. Meanwhile, all six elementary schools whose students will eventually attend Leonardtown High School (Banneker, Leonardtown, Hollywood, Oakville, Piney Point and Town Creek) have more students than their state-rated capacity.
At Monday's meeting, Billy Johnson of Morganza told the Planning Commission that growth and development have "gotten out of control" in St. Mary's. He proposed a moratorium on all major developments until more roads and schools can be built.
"I know there are probably a lot of developers back there that want to shoot me," he said. "[But] sometimes when it's fourth and long you've just got to step back and punt."
But in the development community, the small number of approved lots was received with disappointment. Of the pending subdivisions, five of them, totaling 256 lots, have received all approvals required by the adequate public facilities ordinance except for schools. Denis Canavan, director of land use and growth management, recommended giving nine of the 44 lots to each of four projects and eight to a fifth project.
"The problem I've got here is I don't know where we're going to be in the next group of allocations," said Bill Higgs, who surveys for local developments, including the Estates at Joy Chapel, one of the subdivisions. He said providing water and sewer service to a subdivision could cost more than $1 million. All for nine lots? Higgs asked.
"How much longer are we going to wait until it's cost effective and we get that money back?" he asked.
Although the St. Mary's County Board of Education recently identified a potential site for a new elementary school along Route 5 in Leonardtown, the enrollment capacity it represents cannot be added to the school equation until the deal is approved. And even if that happens, the bottleneck shifts to the middle school level, "where the remaining capacity is limited to 29 seats or 270 dwellings," Canavan wrote in a July 5 memo.
"Thus, the school capacity issue prohibits approval of all the pending major subdivisions (subdivisions with 6 or more lots) in this area," he wrote.
County Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said the county "can't allow [the building industry] to come to a complete halt." He suggested that the county look to breaking projects down to more phases "so that we don't have a developer come in with a 175- or 200-lot subdivision and we allocate all he needs for that development . . . with no progress on other projects."
He also said it might be necessary to redistrict school attendance boundaries to alleviate the crowding in the Leonardtown area. Larry Greenwell, chairman of the Planning Commission, said the school board may have to "shuffle these kids to some of these other schools." He added, "I know they don't want to hear that."
The county is divided into three major attendance zones, each tied to one of the three public high schools.
Board of Education Chairman Cathy Allen said the student population in the county's other two school attendance districts is high enough that redistricting would not provide any significant relief.
"Redistricting is really not an option," she said.
On Monday, the Planning Commission also recommended that the planning staff draft a zoning text amendment to diminish the size of what are called "minor subdivisions." Now, subdivisions of five or fewer lots do not need to abide by adequate public facility requirements, with the exception of water and sewer rules, Canavan said. The Planning Commission recommended that the threshold be dropped to three lots.
"The difficulty . . . is we have an insurgence of subdivisions coming in under these provisions, and they also have an impact on our school system, and that's what we're trying to correct," Canavan said.