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We Need to Hold off on Approval of Residential Development that Impact Public Infrastructure


We Need to Hold off on Approval of Residential Development that Impact Public Infrastructure

Hiruy Hadgu

On July 3rd, the County Council proposed a multitude of legislative measures that will have a lasting impact on our county for years, if not decades to come. Some of the proposals include updating the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO), creating a special taxing district in North Laurel that lays the groundwork for a so-called tax increment financing (TIF), and a bill amending the zoning regulations pertaining to composting, mulching, and emergency mulching in specified areas throughout the county. At the same time, the county is also considering a contentious redistricting project that will impact 16% of the student population. This is in addition to the zoning overhaul project that the county is undertaking, which is expected to take about three years. The online survey taking place maybe found here

The size, scope, and pace of these changes are troubling. The redistricting effort is essentially a consequence of the rapid growth and densification of the county. Concurrently, we are contemplating additional actions that will affect schools and other critical facilities before we see the impact of this redistricting. Furthermore, while there are improvements to the APFO, there are concerns that it will not sufficiently address the ability of our facilities to meet our needs. All of these changes are interrelated and the current efforts appear out of sync and do not incorporate the coupled effects of these proposals. Thus, in order to ascertain its impact, we need to have an integrated analysis of these changes. In the meantime, the approval of future residential developments having an impact on school population and straining other facilities and resources should be put on hold.

I recently spoke to a District 3 resident who shared a concern about the proposed side street on Guilford Road. He indicated that the area was cleared to make way for pedestrian walkway, but no progress has been made in completing this project. He also pointed out that the area on Vollmerhausen and Guilford regularly overflows after heavy rain. Separately, I have observed that the intersection on Whiskey Bottom and Route 1 is packed with traffic congestion every weekday evening. Surprisingly, a grade of “E” is considered acceptable for county roads that intersect state roads such as Route 1. The point of all this is to say that we need to deal with expanding our existing public facilities to accommodate our existing residents before we can think about making big changes.

With the current approach of parallel consideration of the redistricting and the APFO update, I do not see how we will not encounter the same problem in three years when the comprehensive general plan, another APFO review, and a comprehensive zoning review are expected to take place. A review of the 2017 feasibility study shows the pre- and post- measures open/close charts for Howard County schools. The post-measures chart is essentially a green light for additional development rather than a green light for less crowded schools. While many of the schools are over 100%, some are also over 110%. We can't have it both ways; we can't say schools are in the green and use trailers simultaneously. While on the subject of the redistricting, many are also calling for the release of the underlying data used to produce the results (while preserving privacy) since concerns has been raised regarding equity from a diversity point of view as defined by Board Policy 6010.

The 2017 feasibility report shows that the Wilde Lake Replacement School, which adds about 293 new seats, costs over $45 million. High School #13 is projected to cost about $112 million and will have 1,615 seats. Elementary School #42 will cost about $44 million for 788 seats. The per-student cost of these projects ranges from $56k to $153k. Even the County Executive at a Howard County Citizens Association (HCCA) town hall in May acknowledged that property taxes are not nearly enough to cover these per-student costs and he indicated that the commercial tax base is essential for critical infrastructures. The APFO needs to be modified in a way where more focus is given to ensuring that infrastructure can support the needs of existing residents. I am still trying to understand how a school capacity of 110% is considered acceptable. It seems intuitive that 100% means “full.” In fact, some have suggested the existence of a buffer capacity. The new APFO proposal calls for public school facilities surcharge of three times the amount specified in current law if a developer chooses to move forward in an area where the projected capacity is between 115% and 120%. According to Zillow, the median home size sold in Howard County is close to 2,000 sq. ft. According to the 2014 county impact fees report, the school facilities surcharges is $1.25 sq. ft., which is about $2,500, and three times this amount is nearly not enough to cover the per-student costs shown above. A comprehensive analysis is needed before any decisions are made that impact and constrain the county’s resources.

For example, a cursory review of the feasibility report open/close shows that those charts are not intended for an “APFO test.” This means that the APFO report uses one chart and the feasibility study uses a different chart for the same open/close analysis. There needs to be a single common open/close chart created jointly by the school system and the county government to ensure a consistent basis for approval of future development. It is also not clear why high schools are not included in the current as well as future APFO tests. There should also be consideration given to assessment from an environmental impact standpoint. The shifting of allocation of 200 units from growth and revitalization regions to established communities also needs to be reconsidered. Rather, the overall allocation of units should be reduced. These are just some of the changes that are needed to further strengthen the APFO.

Some have stated that people come to Howard County for its great schools; looking for a better life. It would be unfair to suggest we reduce development. If we are to resume this rate of development, no one will be better off. As someone aptly put it, we would be “killing the goose that laid the golden egg” by increasing the density of the community. I am for growth and development. We just need to ensure that it is done in an orderly fashion.

The attendance at the Council hearing on July 17th is expected to be high due to all the proposals being considered. Sign-ups to testify at the hearing have already started here