An article in Saturday's Real Estate section incorrectly stated that Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist is recommending that construction of one proposed high school and 11 proposed elementary schools be delayed. Gilchrist is recommending that one proposed high school and two of the 11 proposed elementary schools be delayed and that the remaining nine elementary schools be larger to accommodate more students.
For the first time in recent memory, the Montgomery County Planning Board staff has recommended that a rezoning request for a new subdivision be denied because area schools are too crowded to absorb the estimated 125 students who would live there.
Staff and board members said this week that the County Council, worried about the cost of new has asked the planning board to study school capacity and, if needed, invoke a state law that allows localities to deny new housing if there are not enough public facilities to support the new people.
The planning board makes recommendations on planning requests to the County Council, which makes final decisions.
"Schools are considered a public facility," said Deane E. Mellander of the planning staff. "Normally, we have not given schools a great deal of weight . . . , but the council has certainly indicated that we should take a much closer look at school capacity."
Last week, the planning board voted to defer the rezoning request of a developer who wants to build a 144-house subdivision on 66 acres in a fast-growing area near Burtonsville. The decision was based partially on the premise that schools in the area are full.
But the board also threw in a few more reasons -- such as inadequate roads and sewers -- for good measure.
Explained board member Mable M. Granke: "The courts take a dim view on school capacity being the sole reason for denial under the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. We have to be cautious."
The ordinance allows localities to deny new development if there are not enough public facilities, such as roads, fire protection, sewers, water, schools and the like, to support it. The county has been increasingly invoking this ordinance, developers charge. Late last year, Montgomery used the law to back a moratorium on development in the fast-growing area between Rockville and Gaithersburg until new roads are built.
The planning board's recent decision to consider school capacity in a rezoning case is the latest action in a controversy involving the state, the County Council, board of education, planning board -- and now developers -- over the need for new schools. School board members say the new facilities are desperately needed, but County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist has said the government cannot afford them.
In December, Gilchrist chopped nearly $100 million from a six-year, $248 million school-building program approved by the board of education, postponing one proposed high school and 11 proposed elementary schools.
Montgomery has been hit in recent years with a double blow of increasing enrollments and decreasing state aid for construction. And Gilchrist has said he fears the county's bond rating will suffer if it borrows the $248 million the board of education says is needed.
In an effort to decrease the need, the county is turning toward the possiblity of decreasing new development, according to county officials.
Developers, in turn, are responding with a chorus of complaints that center around the refrain "unfair."
"We are vehemently opposed to a philosophy such as the one Montgomery County seems bent on adopting because it is completely unfair to the builder and to the homeowner," said Susan J. Matlick, executive vice president of the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association. "It is the government's responsibility to provide facilities for all the people, whether we are talking roads, libraries, schools or hospitals."
"We will not permit this arbitrary imposition of unreasonable regulations to continue," said association President Stanley S. Halle, one of the county's larger builders. "We will be working this year to ensure that local and state government accepts the responsibility of providing the facilities for the public they serve."
Blair G. Ewing, a member of the board of education, said he understands such arguments.
"A policy like this will have detrimental effects on the growth of the county, no question about it," he said. "But if the county is not going to build new schools -- and the county executive's proposal is not adequate -- then it is worse to approve housing in areas where the schools are filled to capacity."
It is also well known, according to county officials, that the tax revenue derived from a new housing development rarely pays for the public facilities needed to service it. Residents who are already settled in the county, meanwhile, are reluctant to pay more taxes for services that go to newcomers, they say.
This makes laws such as the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance popular among current residents, the very ones who elect officials. So, limiting new development could well be the most popular route for the County Council to take, officials said.
Although the planning board has bowed to the wishes of the County Council and agreed to consider school capacity when considering new housing developments, it is clearly reluctant to do so.
They say the facilities ordinance is a law that is used frequently and successfully throughout Maryland. But, they say the state's courts have come down hard on localities who put off development indefinitely based only on the premise that their schools are full.
Hypothetically, said Christeller, Montgomery County could deny new housing because its 152 schools are full to capacity. Then, the county could decide not to build new schools because there are no new students waiting to fill them. Because there are no new schools, it could continue to deny new development. The cycle could become endless, resulting in stable schools but stifled development, he said.
"The courts have said that is arbitrary, that you are denying the property owner his rights," said Christeller.
He believes Montgomery will use school capacity as a reason to hold back development only for as long as it takes to "catch up" and build the schools it needs to handle students who are either already in the system or who will live in developments that have already been approved by the county and are under construction.
Ralph Wilson, of the County Council staff, agreed.
"We're not saying the location of our schools will determine where there can be growth," he said. "We're just delaying the development until we coordinate the construction of new schools."
But developers, who say the county is saving money on new schools at the builders' expense, may not wait.
"We will have to see how extensive it is," she said. "But if it comes to legal action, then that's the way we'll go."