St. Mary’s growth policy remains untested -- Gazette.Net



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St. Mary’s County continues to grow at a rapid rate, though its own local policy to limit growth has yet to be tested. And with the addition of new public schools, student capacity should be in place for at least 10 years, the county commissioners were told Tuesday.

In 2008, the same year the national housing bubble burst, the St. Mary’s County commissioners enacted the first cap on annual growth at 1.9 percent of existing home stock. The number of new lots created annually since then has come nowhere near that permissible amount.

The growth policy would have permitted 808 new lots for homes this fiscal year, which ends this month. Only 76 new home lots were approved — 9 percent of the maximum, said Phil Shire, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management.

That is the smallest number of new lots approved since the growth policy was put in place. In the last fiscal year, 178 new lots were approved, 168 the year before that, 288 in fiscal 2011, 269 the year before that and 320 in fiscal 2009.

Commission President Jack Russell (D) said the intent in 2008 was to limit growth “and then the bubble broke and we’ve been going in decline ever since.”

“It was a fine accomplishment in its day,” Shire said of the growth policy, which took years to develop.

The growth policy does not track new building permits, which can allow construction on previously approved lots, or population growth. In the next fiscal year, the cap would allow 815 new lots for new homes based on the existing 42,909 homes in St. Mary’s County, land-use staff said.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported this spring the population of St. Mary’s County in 2013 was 109,633 people, an increase of 4.3 percent since 2010 and the third-fastest growth rate in the state.

The St. Mary’s growth policy is also supposed to divert development into specified areas like Leonardtown, California and Lexington Park, rather than into rural areas, “which doesn’t seem to be occurring,” planner Dave Chapman said.

More new lots were created in rural areas than in areas targeted for development: 41 to 35 new lots.

State law allowed counties to change the definition of minor subdivisions from five lots to seven lots, freeing up some new development there. “We’re seeing a lot of that infill” on private roads, for example, Chapman said.

There is still capacity in public schools for thousands of new homes, according to county rules on approving new homes, called adequate public facilities.

The numbers for adequate public facilities are higher than a school’s actual capacity for students, Chapman said and “includes schools not even out of the ground yet,” like Capt. Walter Francis Duke Elementary School in Leonardtown.

“We don’t anticipate having to put the brakes on new development in the near future,” he said because of a lack of classroom space.

New growth in some areas of St. Mary’s was shut down in 2005 when school capacity began running out.

The county is now divided into two sections to determine adequate public facilities for elementary schools, using Route 4 as the boundary. The southern county has less student capacity than the north, but still has room for 274 elementary school students, and that still allows for 1,275 new homes there, Chapman said, because “not every house provides a student in the elementary [school] system.”

The public school system expects 348 new students this fall, about 200 of them in elementary schools.

jbabcock@somdnews.com