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Baltimore County Task Force Looks To Change Law That Favors Developers

John Lee

While Baltimore County’s classrooms are empty now due to COVID-19, many of its 163 schools will be crowded once things return to normal. That’s because its school construction program hasn’t kept up with a growing population.

There is an effort to put the brakes on proposed developments that would send more students to schools that are already full.

Baltimore County’s code states a developer cannot build in a school zone if that school is crowded. But there is a loophole. If there is room in a nearby school, the county can green light the development. Then the school board is supposed to adjust the enrollment by redistricting the schools’ boundaries, but that rarely happens.

Parent advocate Yara Cheikh points to Towson High School, at nearly 130% of its student capacity, as an example of how developers have taken advantage of that loophole.

“It has been used to allow for developments, concentrated numbers of developments in a single area,” Cheikh said. “And that’s been problematic. And downtown Towson is a good example of that.”

Cheikh sits on a task force that will propose ways to change the code, including possibly closing that loophole. It plans to make a report to the county council around the first of the year.

The task force is also examining another part of the code that favors developers. It says schools are not considered crowded until they reach 115% capacity.

Lori Graf, the CEO of the Maryland Building Industry Association, which represents developers, supports the current code. But she expects the task force’s eventual recommendations will mean developers will need to make concessions. Graf cautions that any changes that slow down development would hurt the county’s economy.

“Every house that gets built, you have property taxes and other fees that go to the county,” Graf said. “And all of that won’t happen if you don’t develop certain properties.”

Graf said crowding comes more from young families moving into older neighborhoods, rather than from new development.

She said she expects the building industry will support the task force’s eventual recommendations.

Rick Williams, who represents the developers on the task force, said at a recent meeting that a review of the code was overdue.

“I think you’re forcing the council and other officials to look at things that we haven’t really, haven’t been looked at in the past,” Williams said.

That includes how affordable housing fits into this.

According to the task force’s draft report, affordable housing developers in other localities have asked for exemptions so they can build near crowded schools. That would help the county abide by a 2016 agreement it has with the federal government to create 1,000 affordable housing units in 12 years.

Cheikh supported that agreement, but she said students living in affordable housing near packed schools would bear the consequences if developers get an exemption.

“The kids that live in affordable housing can go to overcrowded schools, but other kids can’t,”Cheikh said.

When a development of any kind is proposed, the school system estimates how many children will live there and will be going to nearby schools. According to the task force’s draft report, the estimates of how many children will be living in developments that currently are in the pipeline appear to be low.

Republican Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson and proposed creating the task force, said the school system is not being transparent about how it’s making those estimates.

“I want to see concrete numbers and I want to see overall more coordination with our department of planning,” Marks said.

Mychael Dickerson, School Superintendent Darryl Williams’ Chief of Staff, said before they hand over enrollment data, they have to make sure they are protecting students’ privacy.

“It’s not a matter of not wanting to provide the information, it’s just a matter of making sure we take all of the necessary steps we have to to make sure we’re not doing something that is not allowed,” Dickerson said.

Councilman Marks expects the county council will act on the task force’s recommendations, saying the county’s classrooms “are running out of seats.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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