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Law That Favors Developers Under Scrutiny in Baltimore County

John Lee

Baltimore County law allows developers to build homes and apartments near crowded schools. 

School advocates and some officials want to reshuffle the deck they say is stacked in favor of developers.

Baltimore County code states a developer cannot build in a school’s district if that school is crowded. But there is a big loophole. If there is room in an adjacent school district, then the developer can go ahead and build. The idea is that the school board will then change school boundaries, switching kids from the crowded school affected by the new development to the school that has room. But there is a problem with that, according to Dulaney High School PTA Vice President Yara Cheikh.

“In the history of my education advocacy over a dozen years, this has never happened,” Cheikh said

So the development gets the green light, the students stay put, and the crowded school gets more packed. At a recent school board committee meeting, board member Lily Rowe said developers often blame the school system for not fixing what she said is the mess the developers are creating.

Rowe said, “Basically a law that was made to restrict development in a way that protects school capacity or at least makes development keep pace with school capacity is actually worded in such a way that it is contributing to the overcrowding of our school system.”

Rowe’s favorite example of this is on the east side. Sparrows Point and Dundalk High Schools are both crowded but development is allowed because Chesapeake High School is considered an adjacent school district and has room. But Chesapeake High is across the Back River from the other two schools and there is no bridge.

“To get kids over there you would have to drive through three different high school zones,” Rowe said. “So why is it adjacent?”

Changing school boundaries is often controversial and politically charged. But Lori Graf, chief executive officer for the Maryland Building Industry Association, said the school board should do it more often. Graf said development means more taxes paid and more money available for, among other things, school construction.

“There’s the old adage that if you’re not a growing county you’re a dying county,” Graf said. “You need some growth. There has to be a balancing act.”

Graf favors leaving the adjacent school statute as is. She said as far as she knows, no other locality in Maryland has anything similar to it.

Jeff Mayhew, deputy director of planning for Baltimore County, said he can’t recall an instance where the department recommended denying a proposed development because the closest school was already packed. Mayhew said moving students from one school to another is one of the least expensive ways to deal with the problem.

“Rather than spending capital infrastructure dollars to build additional seats,” Mayhew said.

The planning department does not check later to see if the redistricting actually happened.

Enrollment in the Baltimore County Schools increased by more than 1,200 students this past year. A school is considered crowded if it is at or greater than 115 percent capacity.

Republican Councilman David Marks has the county’s most crowded high school, Towson High, in his district. It’s at nearly 130 percent capacity. Marks said the current system is broken because the county government is fragmented.

“The county council has control over land use and zoning,” Marks said. “The county executive helps with the funding through the budget. But the school board ultimately is the one that controls the lines.”

Marks said current law favors developers and he plans to draft legislation to address that..

Cheikh said last year’s passage of an impact fee on developers indicates that some county council members want to change the influence developers have.

Cheikh said, “I think getting rid of the loopholes by the county council would be a clear indication that things for development are going to be more stringent, more thoughtful and more strategic moving forward.”

Marks pushed the impact fee through the county council but it was not easy. He expects any future legislation dealing with developers also will be a tough vote.