The Charles County Planning Commission announced Monday that it will review the county’s policies for ensuring schools will not be overcrowded by the construction of new residential subdivisions, with an eye to providing recommendations for improvements to the county commissioners.
The planning commission is also interested in looking at how the policy for school seat allocations, as classroom openings are called, affects the construction of affordable housing in the county.
The decision to review the commissioners’ policy came about during a review of a request for a four-year extension on its proposal to construct single-family homes on a five-acre lot at the corner of Cannon Park Road and Marshall Hall Road in Bryans Road.
Douglas Meeker, vice president of Elm Street Development, told the planning commission that the project had not proceeded since it was approved four years ago because the county had not offered any school seat allocations in that time.
“I believe this instance highlights a systemic problem with the current allocation policy,” Meeker said. “Sufficient allocations simply aren’t available in areas where development is supposed to occur within the development district and priority funding areas. During the last five years, the majority of the school allocations that have been offered were to projects outside of the development district.”
The 2016 Comprehensive Plan specifies that three-quarters of the county’s future growth should be concentrated in urban and suburban areas designated as development districts that provide access to public facilities and services, but that also offer amenities such as parks. Roughly 20% of the county has been designated as the main development district, including Waldorf, Indian Head and Bryans Road.
Meeker said that in 2019, only 13% of the school seat allocations offered by the county were for projects in a development district, and last year that number was just 4%. In the last five years, the largest percentage of school seats offered to a project in a development district was 30% in 2016, according to Meeker
“I believe this trend demonstrates the current allocation policy isn’t supporting many of the goals and objectives of the comprehensive plan, including directing development to the development district, promoting redevelopment and providing a broad range of housing opportunities,” Meeker said. “I respectfully request the planning commission review this matter and make some recommendations to bring the policy into conformance with the comprehensive plan and other governing documents in the county.”
Planning commission chairman Wayne Magoon said that although he personally agreed with Meeker that the current school seat allocation policy is “a big problem” and that he had raised the issue himself several times as a commission member, the commission was unable to do more than provide recommendations to the county commissioners on the policy.
“We’re certainly not the controlling body when it comes to school seats,” Magoon said. “But, for one, I agree with you.”
After voting unanimously to grant Meeker’s request for a four-year extension for the Bryans Road project, the members of the planning commission discussed whether to investigate the issue and provide recommendations to the county commissioners.
Planning director Jason Groth suggested that county staff could analyze school seat allocation trends in Charles County to verify Meeker’s claims, which could then be used to develop recommendations to the county commissioners for modifying the policy.
The county calculates school seats as a percentage of the total number of dwelling units in a particular school attendance zone in order to prevent overcrowding. There must be a sufficient number of openings in the zone’s elementary, middle and high schools before a project can get a green light to proceed. However, it can take years for a sufficient number of school seats to open up at all three school levels.
Planning commission member Robin Barnes agreed that the commission should look at how well the school seat allocation process has aligned with the goals of the comprehensive plan.
“If we set that plan, which they approved, and we don’t have a consonance of effort to actually get to those goals, I think informing them of what the impacts of some of the things that are happening in front of this commission would be pretty enlightening to them,” Barnes said.
Member William Murray argued that the current school allocation policy is “holding back affordable housing in Charles County,” which is another goal of the comprehensive plan. He suggested that the county commissioners consider exempting affordable housing from the requirements of the county’s Adequate Public Facilities manual, which provides procedures and guidelines for ensuring the county’s school, traffic and groundwater supply needs are met.
“I wholeheartedly agree that it is [the county commissioners’] ultimate decision, but if they’re not looking at it, or they’re not seeing the problem, then they’re not going to address it just out of the blue,” Magoon said.
“I’m sure they’re looking at it,” vice-chair Angela Sherard commented.
“I’m not,” Magoon replied.
Sherard encouraged her fellow commission members to hold off on making any recommendations related to affordable housing until county staff brief them on the county’s affordable housing situation, which is scheduled to take place next month.
“As far as the affordable housing piece, I think that after we are briefed on the housing report, that we’ll have more information rather than saying definitively that the reason affordable housing is not occurring is because of school seats,” Sherard said. “There are other factors that we need to take into consideration as well as we go through updating subdivision regulations and zoning ordinances.”
“We need to put that out in front of [the county commissioners] somehow, or at least let them know that the planning commission is looking at it and maybe it’s something they need to be looking at as well,” Magoon said.