School allocation legislation moves forward

The Charles County Planning Commission agreed last week to pass on submitting comments on proposed legislation that would change the county’s formula for approving new residential subdivision construction based on school capacity.

The unanimous decision to wait until the draft legislation has been presented to the Board of Charles County Commissioners before providing input is expected to ensure the drafting process continues to move forward without interruption.

Deputy director of planning and growth management Jason Groth told the planning commission members that he hoped to have a draft of the revised school seat allocation policy ready to present to the county commissioners by late July.

Compared to land use and development policies in other counties in Maryland, Groth said, “we currently have the most restrictive policy in the state, as far as we know.”

Under current law, construction of a planned subdivision is not allowed to proceed until there are enough openings in the community’s elementary, middle, and high schools to accommodate the anticipated number of children that will be living in that subdivision. However, it can take years or even decades before enough school seats open up in all three schools to allow a project to proceed.

Further complicating matters, although the 2016 Comprehensive Plan stipulates that three-quarters of future growth should be concentrated in the county’s designated development districts, in practice the majority of new development that has been approved is located outside those districts.

Last July, the planning commission announced that it would review the county’s school seat allocation policies and provide recommendations for changes to the Board of Charles County Commissioners. At that meeting, planning commission member William Murray said he believed the current policy was “holding back affordable housing in Charles County.”

Last month, county planning staff proposed two options to the planning commissioners: to concentrate on school seat allocations in the county’s development districts, or to grow the number of school allocations in the county’s three federally designated “Opportunity Zones,” which are economic booster zones that grant investors tax incentives for undertaking development in economically distressed areas.

The county’s development districts, as outlined in the 2016 Comprehensive Plan, encompass Waldorf and White Plains, Bryans Road, and part of the Town of Indian Head. The county’s federally recognized Opportunity Zones are all of Indian Head, the Waldorf Urban Redevelopment Corridor, and the Waldorf Station development at Mattawoman Beantown Road and U.S. Route 301.

After reviewing both options at their June 8 meeting, the planning commissioners asked the planning department to come up with a third option that exempts projects in the Opportunity Zones from the school allocation policy under certain conditions and includes a sunset provision that awards half of the school seats to a project after five years on the waiting list and releases the balance of the seats if the project is still on the waiting list after six more years.

At their June 16 open session, the Board of Charles County Commissioners instructed staff to move forward with drafting legislation that encompasses those changes and also establishes a percentage of affordable housing in future developments.

“The planning commission has given staff direction in the past to do a fair amount of research on this subject,” Groth told the planning commissioners. “All of that research went heavily into our efforts in developing a draft policy, which the commissioners have given us direction on in terms of concept.”

“I believe the policies that staff is bringing forward now, especially with the sunset clause and so forth, goes a long way in mitigating the stranglehold that … school seats have had on land use in the county,” Murray said. “But eventually we have to do a comprehensive study … about how the school seats affect our [capital improvement program] budget. We need more analysis, we need more matrix, and we need more supporting data to really take a harder look at all this. But I think it’s a start that the staff has come up with, and a good start.”

Groth said that the public would also have the opportunity to comment on the draft legislation at public hearings before both the Board of Charles County Commissioners and the Planning Commission.

illustration: Charles County Government