2015 | News

Rockville Loosens Standards for Development Based On School Overcrowding

City Council votes to adopt Montgomery County rules after hard-fought political battle

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City of Rockville council member Tom Moore

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The Rockville City Council on Monday narrowly approved loosening its much-debated standards on new residential development and school capacity.

The council voted 3-2 to adopt Montgomery County’s more lenient rules when it comes to projects proposed for areas with public schools that are already over capacity.

Rockville’s previous Adequate Public Facility Standards (APFS) for schools, enacted in 2005, placed a moratorium on new residential development in any school’s area if that school was more than 110 percent over capacity.

The proposal approved Monday will change the moratorium standard to 120 percent and allow for schools at each education level to be averaged by the total enrollment in their high school cluster.

It will also take into account any school expansion or new school projects planned for the five years after a project is proposed. Rockville’s previous standard counted new school space coming in only the two years after a project is proposed.

“It’s been a long time coming,” council member Tom Moore said. “It became clear to me this is what we need to do to get the debate about school capacity issues to the county and out of Rockville City Hall.”

Moore, who first proposed changing to the county standards last November, frequently pointed to the fact that the city has no control over the Montgomery County public schools within its borders.

He said Montgomery County “saw our tighter standards as sort of an irritant,” and the over 110 percent of capacity moratorium rule failed to convince Montgomery County leaders to add more school space in Rockville any faster.

“We are making it clear to the county that we’re all in the same boat,” Moore said. “It’s a pretty powerful statement that we really are in this together when it comes to the schools.”

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and council member Beryl Feinberg voted against changing the APFS for schools.

Council members Virginia Onley and Julie Palakovich Carr voted with Moore for the change after a roughly hour-long debate that touched on the history of portable classrooms, where school facility payments from developers go and the relationship between the county and the city.

“Do we believe that Rockville residents have the right that we have the infrastructure in place before we allow development?” Newton asked others on the council.

“They do, but there is no way to provide that when it comes to schools,” Moore said, comparing the city’s APFS for schools to its standards for things it does control such as sewer and water lines.

The vote came after seven months of debate in the city of a little more than 64,000 residents. More than 90 people testified during two public hearings in January.

Rockville Town Square, which has faced a number of high-profile retail and restaurant space vacancies in the past year. Credit: Aaron Kraut

A vote on the move was scheduled in February, but a motion from Moore was withdrawn after some on the council said a decision should be postponed.

Onley asked that the issue be put on Monday’s agenda for a discussion, though she said that discussion wouldn’t necessarily lead to a vote.

It became clear early on that Moore, Onley and Palakovich Carr were prepared to vote Monday to make the change.

“I think it’s shortsighted because we don’t know some of the other parameters,” Newton said after the vote. “I don’t buy the assumption that Rockville’s dying.”

Some supporters of changing the APFS—including Rose Krasnow, a former mayor of the city and the deputy director of the Montgomery County Planning Department— cited a slew of commercial vacancies in Rockville Town Square as proof that the development moratorium was choking the city’s economic development.

Six elementary schools in the city are over or expected to soon surpass the 110 percent of capacity mark, meaning progress was halted on at least two new residential projects planned for the Twinbrook and Tower Oaks areas.

Palakovich Carr pointed out that most of the schools in the city include students who live outside of the city, where new projects such as Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg and Pike & Rose in North Bethesda are taking shape.

Under the county’s standards, none of the high school clusters with schools in Rockville will meet the 120 percent of capacity moratorium mark.

There are no high school clusters in the county that meet the moratorium standard, though 16 of the 25 clusters are over 105 percent of capacity, meaning extra school facility payments are required from residential development in those areas.

Montgomery County planners will begin work this summer on updating the Subdivision Staging Policy, the county’s version of the APFS that was formerly known as the Growth Policy.

Feinberg and Newton said they would’ve preferred Rockville wait to change its standards until after the county updated its own standards.