No New Houses?

No New Houses?

New growth policy could bring building moratorium to parts of Potomac.

The county is looking to redefine when schools are too full to support any more development, with implications for Potomac. Several options could lead to a building moratorium in the Churchill, Whitman and Wootton cluster areas.

Development in Potomac could be halted under three of the 11 options presented in Park and Planning’s revised Annual Growth Policy (AGP) test of school facilities.

The Annual Growth Policy is the document which guides the administration of Montgomery County’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO). It is revised in odd numbered years.

The Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance was created by the council to ensure that new development would not overly burden existing county infrastructure, particularly roads and schools. Critics say that county definitions of “capacity” for a given road or school have taken the teeth out of the Adequate Public Facilities tests.

Of the two tests, school capacity is the one which could have the most impact in Potomac.

There are three definitions for school capacity. The most restrictive is set by the state; the definition of capacity set by Montgomery County Public Schools falls between the county and state definitions. The least restrictive definition is the one currently in use, set by the previous version of the Annual Growth Policy.

Currently development can occur if either the cluster in which the development is planned, or an adjacent cluster (under a process known as “borrowing”), is under 100 percent of the Annual Growth Policy’s definition of capacity. The idea being that the schools can re-draw the boundary lines (see map) to allow new students generated by new homes to fit.

Even though Potomac Elementary is over capacity, development can occur by borrowing capacity from Seven Locks Elementary, which is also in the Churchill cluster. If Seven Locks, and all other elementary schools in the Churchill cluster were at capacity, development could still occur by “borrowing” capacity from an elementary school in an adjacent cluster, regardless of where, geographically in that cluster the capacity happens to be.

In theory, a developer could build a house on the Potomac River, even though Potomac Elementary might be full, by borrowing the available capacity from College Gardens Elementary School (in the Richard Montgomery cluster), whose boundary straddles Hungerford Drive in Rockville.

Park and Planning staff recommend ending this practice.

Borrowing is becoming unpopular since re-drawing boundary lines can take several years and is always a contentious process, and frequently the result is overcrowded schools, which the “adequate public facilities ordinance” is intended to prevent.

“Folks felt that the schools test was disconnected from their real experience,” said Karl Moritz, research manager for Park and Planning. Moritz headed the group which prepared the proposed Annual Growth Policy.

Borrowing would be allowed to continue at the high school level, meaning that even if Churchill were over capacity, new development would still be allowed if there was available capacity in adjacent clusters — Whitman, Wootton, Walter Johnson or Richard Montgomery.

Council and planners will choose between nearly a dozen options for how to determine whether or not a cluster should be in moratorium. Each is a different permutation of the definition for the word “capacity” coupled with whether or not the practice of borrowing is allowed to continue.

The staff recommendation (option 7) would end borrowing, but would allow development if the cluster’s capacity were under 105 percent of the growth policy definition of capacity – the least restrictive definition. Under this plan, the Potomac-Seven Locks scenario described above could continue since both schools are in the same cluster, but the College Gardens scenario could not occur. This option would not affect development in Potomac.

Another aspect being suggested by Park and Planning staff would allow development, at a premium, as an area exceeds capacity. In the recommended option described above, if a cluster is between 105 and 110 percent capacity, development would still be allowed to continue. Developers would be required to pay an impact fee equal to double the proposed Education Impact Tax (see sidebar).

If the tax is approved by this week, the total paid would equal double the impact tax amount.

Only at 110 percent of capacity would a cluster be placed in moratorium. Under this proposal, development in the Damascus, Walter Johnson, Kennedy, and Northwest cluster would have to pay the education premium. No clusters would come under moratorium.

The premium is a distinct proposal which could function along with any of the proposals.

The staff recommended option is not the least restrictive. According to Moritz, this option was chosen because it provides the best balance between development and the needs of the schools.

“We wanted to identify the areas where the situation was most critical,” Moritz said.

Other options range from placing no cluster in moratorium to placing 15 of the county’s 23 clusters in moratorium.

In Potomac, the roads test would have little impact. There are some sections of road, which under some definitions are considered “approaching congestion,” but even those are generally unproblematic.

Approaching congestion means the road is at 60-80 percent of capacity during rush hour.

“Even then, you’ll not notice problems with flow,” said Moritz. Percent of capacity is the ratio of the number of cars per hour to the number a road is able to handle. The number a road is able to handle is determined by the type of roadway – highway versus country road.

“It’s the standard capacity used by traffic engineers nationally,” Moritz said.

Even using the most restrictive set of definitions for road capacity, there are not problems severe enough to end development in the Potomac area.

The AGP is available for review at