A proposal intended to speed the approval of new public schools in rural parts of St. Mary's County ran into objections from the county commissioners this week.
The recommendation by the county's Department of Land Use and Growth Management would have changed zoning rules to allow public schools in the Rural Preservation District, some 178,000 acres or nearly 80 percent of county land, to be considered a "permitted use" rather than a "conditional use."
Of the county's 25 public schools, 12 are in these rural areas. Currently, new schools or renovation projects located there must get approval from the Board of Appeals, which zoning administrator Yvonne Chaillet said can tack two to four months onto the process.
The proposed change would "streamline the process," she said. "The authority really should lie with the county commissioners and not the Board of Appeals."
But the commissioners didn't appear quite ready to accept that power. Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) said that new schools have a significant effect on the landscape, so residents should be able to voice their opposition. He said, for example, a radio tower is also listed in zoning rules as a "conditional use."
"[A radio tower] produces no noise, minimal disturbance of the soil, minimal runoff. . . . Can the same be said for schools? I don't think so," he said. "You're going to have traffic problems, you're going to have soil disturbance."
The proposal comes at a time when school officials are aggressively seeking sites for new schools that would ease crowding at over-enrolled buildings. Last month, one potential location was identified along Route 5 in Leonardtown. Lack of capacity in Leonardtown-area elementary schools has brought new residential building projects nearly to a halt.
Although this week's zoning text amendment proposal could hasten the approval process, going through the Board of Appeals does not appear to be much of an obstacle to new schools. J. Bradley Clements, chief administrative officer for St. Mary's County public schools, said that, in his experience, the Board of Appeals has never denied a potential school site.
In its initial form, the proposal would affect public schools but not private schools. This distinction struck commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) as unfair. He said 20 percent of the county's children are educated in private schools, many of which are in rural areas. By not including them in the text amendment, "I think we're making a mistake," he said.
Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) sought a middle ground, saying that he opposed changing the approval status for new school construction but that renovations should not require another hearing before the Board of Appeals.
After changes by county planning staff members, the proposed amendment will come back before the commissioners for a second reading.
A second zoning text amendment also was discussed Tuesday at the commissioners' meeting in Leonardtown. The proposal would strengthen the existing language in the zoning ordinance to further protect residents' right to farm in the county. The proposed change would say that agriculture, aquaculture and silviculture (forestry) are preferred land uses in the Rural Preservation District. "Restrictions on hours of operation of farm equipment and use of odor-producing fertilizers and mandatory noise reductions may not be imposed on the farmer in agricultural and rural preservation districts and in those districts where farming is allowed," part of the proposed text reads.
Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said occasionally new people moving to the county will complain about the smells of people cleaning barns, using chicken manure or ground up tobacco leaves as fertilizer.
"It really, really smells; it's terrible," he said of the ground tobacco. "We get complaints about that, but they're legitimate fertilizer products."