Changes to school allocations unveiled as public review begins

UPDATE: The Charles County Planning Commission has announced that it will be holding a virtual public hearing on the proposed legislation and changes to the Adequate Public Facilities Manual on August 17, 2020 at 6:00 pm.

A Charles County Government press release issued on July 28 said “[t]he purpose of the amendments is to improve the school allocation process, and provide incentives and additional flexibility to accommodate priority projects, including mixed-used development and affordable workforce housing.”

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The Board of Charles County Commissioners and the public have had their first look at proposed legislation that would allow eligible developments to get their full share of school seats within 12 years of project plan approval.

A companion set of changes being proposed for the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Manual would immediately grant all allocated school seats to eligible development projects that have been on the school seat waiting list for seven years or longer.

The county commissioners decided to revisit the policies by which new residential and mixed-use subdivision construction is allowed to proceed based on available school capacity at the recommendation of the Charles County Planning Commission, which argued that the current policy is hindering the proposal of mixed-use developments, which often have a greater need for school seat allocations at one time; is potentially delaying the construction of affordable workplace housing; and is driving development outside of the county’s designated development districts.

As TLR has previously reported, current law does not allow construction of a planned subdivision 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.

The proposed legislation, entitled “School Adequate Public Facilities,” includes several changes to the process of reviewing and approving school seat allocations, including:

  • The county’s School Capacity Allocation Committee, which is composed of the county commissioners and the Charles County Board of Education, would now meet annually to “confer,” not to “decide,” on appropriate allocations for the upcoming year, with the county commissioners approving the final amount of allocations.
  • “Student yield,” or the estimated number of school students per dwelling unit, would be added to the list of factors considered by the allocation committee, along with current and projected enrollments and the capacities of individual schools.
  • Development projects that have been designated as priority development projects or PDPs — a newly created designation — as well as projects that have reached a newly proposed time limit on the allocation waiting list, would be added to the list of projects eligible to receive their allocated school seats.

The time limit — as spelled out in the proposed changes to the APF Manual — is twelve years for new projects approved after the proposed legislation is adopted, or seven years for projects that are already on the allocation waiting list at the time of passage.

Jason Groth, deputy director of the planning and growth management department, told the commissioners that planning staff settled on twelve years as a suitable period for allocations in order to align it with the county’s subdivision regulations, which state that a developer has that long to record at least 25% of the lots in a subdivision before needing to seek an extension, or abandoning the project altogether.

Projects that have been on the allocation waiting list for at least six years:

  • Will receive 25% of their remaining allocations for four consecutive years;
  • Cannot receive more than 60 allocations per year;
  • Can receive the balance of their allocations when that number reaches 10 or fewer; and
  • Can receive their allocations from the county planning director if the project becomes eligible after the school allocation committee has already met.

Ben Yeckley, a planner with the Department of Planning and Growth Management, explained to the county commissioners during Tuesday’s virtual open session that a development project can be designated a PDP if it is located within one of the county’s designated priority funding areas, files a build-out schedule with the county, and is either a mixed use development or has a minimum of 25% affordable or workforce housing.

Yeckley said that PDPs are limited to 800 allocations per project. The county will issue PDP designations on a first-come, first-served basis, and can withdraw the designation if the developer fails to adhere to the development agreement and build-out schedule.

During Tuesday’s open session, District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) urged PGM to ensure that the proposed changes to the zoning ordinance and the APF Manual don’t result in a situation where school seats are being allocated faster than schools can absorb the influx of new students.

Asked about Stewart’s concerns, Groth told TLR that he believed that the proposed changes will allow the county’s planning staff to become proactive in how it addresses capacity concerns, instead of being perpetually reactive to individual cases as they arise.

“One of the things that this policy does, both for the priority development projects and for projects on the school allocation waiting list, [is] it builds in a factor of time and planning,” Groth said. “All of the priority development projects have to clearly articulate a development schedule and staff will review that to ensure that it’s reasonable and feasible. And we’ll work with our partners, with the board of education and so on, [to] ensure that we’re planning ahead for that capacity.”

As TLR recently reported, a development agreement with developer Greenberg Gibbons Commercial that was recently approved by the Board of County Commissioners stipulates that progress on the centerpiece Waldorf Station project is “expressly contingent upon the County allocating school capacity to the Development to ensure that the School Capacity Allocations needed for 798 residential dwelling units proposed for the Subject Property are vested and available at the time of building permit issuance in advance of occupancy permits.”

The agreement with Greenberg Gibbons requires the county to “diligently pursue such process and schedule a vote on such legislation.”

The public will have opportunities to comment on the proposed changes to the zoning ordinance and APF Manual at public hearings before the Charles County Planning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners in the near future. Stay tuned for TLR’s continuing coverage of these important legislative changes as they work their way through the review and approval process.

illustration: Charles County Government