2015 | News

Divisive Debate Over Development and Schools Back on the Agenda in Rockville

Some in the city want to adjust growth ordinance that has development moratorium in place

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The Upton Rockville apartment building could be one of the last new residential projects in the city for some time because of an ordinance that limits development based on school overcrowding

Aaron Kraut

The fierce debate over school overcrowding and development is back on the agenda in Rockville, and it could be a sign of the larger battle to come in Montgomery County.

Rockville City Council member Tom Moore last year proposed changing the city’s adequate public facilities ordinance, or APFO, to match the county’s more lenient standards when it comes to new development’s impact on schools.

In Rockville, if a residential development is proposed in an area where there’s a  Montgomery County public school that’s over 110 percent of its capacity, that development can’t be built.

Moore would like the city to change to the county’s 120-percent capacity moratorium standard. On Monday, the item will be back on the council’s agenda.

Over the course of two public hearings in January, more than 90 people testified on the proposal. The majority of Rockville residents at the hearings spoke out against loosening the standard, claiming that doing so would hurt the city’s quality of life and its public school students.

Developers, land-use attorneys and business owners argued the current standard is choking the city’s growth, alienating it from the Montgomery County government and forcing it to miss out on millions of dollars in potential school impact fees that are required of developers elsewhere in the county, including in places with similar overcrowding issues.

“This is short-sighted and this is sad,” said Rose Krasnow, a former mayor of the city who now serves as deputy director of the Montgomery County Planning Department.

“People will have to make the choice to live elsewhere and we will be left in the dust by new developments like Downtown Crown and Pike & Rose,” Krasnow told the council in January. “These decisions will have a lasting impact on our city.”

Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said the issue has been one of the most divisive the city has faced in recent memory. The city of a little more than 64,000 residents serves as the county seat and sits in its geographic center.

“Rockville has really been a small town in a big city,” said Newton, who’s opposed to changing the APFO ordinance. “We have an incredible community feeling here. Those laws were enacted to continue to provide that level of service and quality of life.”

The fight in Rockville could foreshadow the one about to take place starting this summer in the rest of Montgomery County as county planners update the Subdivision Staging Policy (formerly known as the Growth Policy).

“This is a holistic issue for Montgomery County,” Newton said. “As we grow, how do we provide and maintain school space and not have children in portables? That’s why I find it amazing that we would want to throw out one of the tools in our toolbox.”

In March, County Council member Roger Berliner held an all-day “Infrastructure Forum” during which county political leaders, planners and even public school system officials told attendees that new development is not the reason the school system is growing by an estimated 2,500 students a year.

Bruce Crispell, the long-range planner for Montgomery County Public Schools, revealed a survey of student addresses in Bethesda schools.

He found 91 elementary school students, 35 middle school students and 60 high school students from the 3,553 apartment and condo units in downtown Bethesda. That made for a significantly lower “student generation rate” than that in established single-family neighborhoods where empty nesters typically sell their homes to younger families with school-aged children.

“There are a number of other factors other than housing development that far outweigh the new growth,” Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers said at the event in March. “Tightening the growth policy may not be the most effective way to approach this.”

That’s essentially the argument Moore is making in Rockville, where at least two major development projects in the pipeline—one in Twinbrook and the other in Tower Oaks—can’t move forward because of the city’s moratorium.

Twinbrook Elementary School was three students under capacity this school year, according to school system statistics. But nearby Ritchie Park Elementary School was 155 students overcapacity.

Beall Elementary School and College Gardens Elementary School were both more than 165 students overcapacity with more than 800 students in each building. The capacity crunch at those schools is expected to grow in the next few school years.

Moore said a third project, a Montgomery Housing Partnership project of affordable units for working-class residents known as Beall’s Grant II, also couldn’t move forward because Beall Elementary School surpassed the 110-percent capacity mark.

Moore said an informal study done by a supporter of loosening the ordinance found that 85 percent of the growth in Rockville’s school population in recent years came from natural turnover in existing housing, not new construction.

“I’ve heard people say that. I’ve never seen any evidence that says that’s true,” said Noreen Bryan, president of Rockville’s West End Citizens Association and an opponent of changing the ordinance. “I’ve never heard of any data that shows that there’s an influx of students that’s really changing this in any consequential way.”

“It’s one of those things. If people want to keep the standards as is, they can get somebody on their side in five seconds,” Moore countered. “All they have to say is ‘Save our schools, don’t touch the APFO.’ Give me two hours and I can show people why it’s a good idea.”

Rockville council member Virginia Onley said she put Moore’s proposal on Monday’s council agenda to make sure “everybody has an opportunity to know what it is and what it means for our future.”

“I don’t want people to be afraid to talk about it,” said Onley, who said the discussion Monday won’t necessarily lead to a vote. “There are some people who say, ‘Whatever you do, don’t change this ordinance.’ Those individuals certainly do have the experience and the brain power to understand it. I think they’re just not focused on the right things about it.”

Larry Giammo, the former mayor of Rockville who helped write the original ordinance in 2005, said it’s the county’s 120-percent school capacity standard that should be changed.

He said the Rockville law was designed specifically to be more stringent than Montgomery County’s policy, which is one of the most relaxed in the state.

While the county’s standard averages school capacity across an entire high school cluster, Rockville’s moratorium goes into effect if just one school in a proposed development’s area is over the 110-percent capacity threshold.

There are currently no Montgomery County school clusters under a development moratorium, though 16 of the county’s 25 high school clusters are over 105-percent capacity.

That means any development approvals in those clusters require extra school facility payments, which can bring in more than $1 million for school improvements depending on the size and scope of the project.

“Basically, [Moore] wants to open the floodgates for the entire city,” Giammo said. “His purported rationale doesn’t add up. He has promulgated myths and misrepresentations which people see right through.”

While first presenting the proposal last November, Moore labeled Giammo’s ordinance an “epic fail” because it didn’t end up encouraging the county and school system to invest more in Rockville schools to avoid the city’s moratorium.

Newton, a former president of the Beall Elementary School PTA, acknowledged that most of the growth in student population has come from existing neighborhoods, not new development.

It’s for that reason Newton said it’s important the county take a hard look at Rockville’s growth ordinance.

“Part of the whole reason to have this was to change the conversation and to look at where the students are coming from because MCPS only counts new development,” Newton said.

Moore pointed to the stalled Beall’s Grant II project, which according to the school system’s projections would have added five extra elementary school students to Beall Elementary School.

“I bought my house from an older couple who had no kids. Now I have six kids going to public schools from my house,” Moore said. “It’s ridiculous that I can move in and throw six kids into a school, whereas the city was barred from creating terrific affordable housing that would have added the same amount.”