- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
At a public forum Tuesday, home developer Jerry Lenhart warned the Charles County commissioners of the harm they would do if they stopped granting Developers Rights and Responsibilities Agreements, contracts allowing the construction of houses in districts with overcrowded public schools.
Before seeking a DRRA, developers have poured money into their projects by buying land; hiring architects, engineers and consultants; and performing several studies, Lenhart said, so being denied the contract is a severe hardship.
“When we get to the point of applying for DRRAs or applying for a final plat, our job is basically done,” Lenhart said.
Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) cut in.
“Mr. Lenhart, I think we may have some good news for you,” she said.
Having recently pledged to vote against development agreements projected to add students to schools lacking capacity for them, she’d decided to wait until a School Allocations Task Force, newly empaneled to examine the issue, gives its recommendations in four or five months. In the meantime, she’d continue voting with the majority to approve the agreements, which allow developers to substitute a payment of $13,600 per house for the available school seats otherwise required before they can build.
Two weeks ago, Kelly voted to approve four agreements approving the construction of 165 houses in districts with overcrowded public schools after previously saying she would vote against them. The vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) in opposition. The day after the vote, she promised to try to change her vote at the next meeting, saying she’d been confused by a report that had used “core” capacity, a more permissive measure of school capacity than “state-rated” capacity, the standard established by the Maryland State Department of Education.
But on Tuesday morning, she did not move to reconsider the vote, saying in an interview afterward that the better course would be to wait until the allocations task force was done. It would be unfair to developers, who had counted on receiving a DRRA, to stop granting them when it had been common practice and after the companies already had invested substantially in their projects, she said. Moving to reconsider the earlier vote would have been futile in any event, Kelly said, because she had not been able to persuade any of the other three commissioners to change their votes. She could not have changed the outcome.
The DRRA process as structured now seemed to Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) to require a “leap of faith” from developers, because they had to invest so much before making the agreement.
“We’re doing this backward. You should get the DRRA before you spend all this money,” he said.
At Kelly’s instigation, county staff will brief the board next week about DRRAs and their effects; she asked Tuesday to schedule the session as an “emergency” agenda item, and her colleagues unanimously agreed.
The task force designed to examine the issue will deliver its recommendations in four or five months. Afterward, the commissioners can change the rules in a way that will apply and be fair to all developers equally, instead of suddenly targeting specific projects, Kelly said.
This reasoning did not appease Charles County Board of Education member Jennifer S. Abell, who is also a member of the allocations task force.
Kelly should have moved to reconsider her vote even if she couldn’t alter the outcome, Abell said Wednesday.
“It doesn’t matter. It still should have been brought forward, and let it be a 2-3 vote. It should still be on the record. That’s my opinion,” she said.
Abell went further on her Facebook page, where she described herself as “shocked, dismayed, disappointed, disillusioned, betrayed” by the decision.
Kelly responded, writing that “it is easy to simply deal with this as a them against us issue but it takes leadership to understand that this is a failure on the part of the entire board to address a major problem” stemming from an earlier commissioners’ decision that changed the way the county measures school capacity without changing the rules governing developers agreements. “Lastly, I think it was prudent and appropriate for the Board to take responsibility and instruct staff that we want this dealt with immediately.”
School board Chairwoman Roberta S. Wise declined to comment Wednesday beyond saying that she was “very disappointed.”
The county teachers union worries about the impacts of development agreements, too, said Elizabeth Brown, president of the Education Association of Charles County.
“It’s a safety issue because teachers have to teach these kids and overcrowding does not help with that. The whole problem is bigger than just [the union] because there’s not enough money out there for school construction. We would like to see lower class sizes because it benefits the kids,” Brown said.
Charles Wineland, Charles County Public Schools assistant superintendant for supporting services, declined to comment, saying he didn’t want to “stir the pot” before a meeting between the school board and commissioners next Tuesday.
Mixed feelings in Waldorf
The agreements were a subject of heated discussion Monday night, as well, at an informal Waldorf meeting with constituents hosted by Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D).
Amanda Stewart of Waldorf asked about the core versus state-rated capacity numbers that had prompted Kelly to vow to change her vote. Collins replied that staff was not at fault.
“Commissioner Kelly wasn’t there [at one meeting]; she didn’t understand the issue and was mixing up the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance from the developers rights and responsibilities agreements. That’s why I’m explaining to you she didn’t know what she was talking about on this,” Collins said.
“Isn’t it true that the decision was not made based on” the state-rated capacity numbers, Stewart pressed. “That’s a yes or no question.”
“Either do not apply with DRRAs. With APFO, the capacity applies,” Collins responded. Under that ordinance, developers cannot build unless there is either room at the public schools or they enter into a development agreement with county government. By definition, developers do not seek such an agreement unless space is lacking at at least one local school. However, capacity numbers do come into play in DRRAs to the extent that they determine how many school seats a developer must buy if a district has some room but not enough for all the students projected to be generated by a new development.
Development agreements are “how you get more money for school construction,” Collins said.
“So you put more people in there to make it more crowded?” Stewart responded, calling that “absurd.”
The crowding in the public schools is overstated, Collins said, saying that the system has had a net increase of only 28 students since 2006. The figure could not immediately be confirmed by CCPS.
“The entire system is overcrowded, but the bulk of our growth is in Waldorf, so guess what? That’s where you’re going to have redistricting. That’s where you’re going to have changes that shift the population. … If you have an example of a jurisdiction that got this down perfectly, give it to me. I would be glad to implement that. I would love to have that,” Collins said.
Other attendees came to his aid.
“So your hands are kind of tied,” concluded Anthony Butler of Waldorf.
“Waldorf has come a long way from where we used to be, but we still have a long way to go,” said Walter I. Carroll, a member of the now-defunct Charles County Economic Development Executive Board. “Hopefully, in a period of time, things will get better,” but in the meantime, residents should be supportive of the commissioners.
But Deron Tross, president of the homeowners association of Waldorf neighborhood Autumn Hills, was enraged at the thought of more students coming to local schools. He was not at Collins’ meeting but said that development running ahead of infrastructure was creating “Prince George’s County 2.0” in Waldorf.
“I think it’s ridiculous. You have the school board as one entity and the county commissioners. They’re not working together. They’re not. Obviously the school board knows that the schools are overcrowded and the commissioners are looking at tax dollars,” Tross said. “That’s it. To be honest with you, I think we, as a community, need to gather together and vote them out of there and throw them out in 2014.”
Also on Tuesday, the commissioners unanimously voted to add three requested DRRAs to the agenda of a future meeting. The board will not vote on the agreements — requested for Hamilton Park in Waldorf and Autumn Woods and Richards Inheritance in La Plata — until after holding a public hearing. They total 170 houses in Waldorf and 25 houses in La Plata.