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Government, educators must craft growth strategy

October 26, 2004

Apparently there's a thin line between barely growing and growing too much. That's the lesson we take from recent articles about the possible impact of proposed new housing developments on the Washington County school system.

The one thing all agencies seem to agree on is that the controls and fees that exist now are not adequate. That's a good reason for all involved to sit down and hash out how to update the county's system for handling development.

If anyone doubted changes were needed, they were probably dispelled last week when William Blum, the school system's chief operating officer, told the County Commissioners that 10 of the county's 43 schools are over capacity.

Not only that, Blum said, but 12 other schools are close to being full. That same week, Blum asked Hagerstown officials to block a proposed 1,478-unit development near the Robinwood Medical Center.

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Blum said the development would require construction of an additional elementary school and add hundreds of students to local middle and high schools.

How should the system deal with growth?

Presently, developers must pay a $7,355 fee for every dwelling unit built in a district where schools are at 85 percent of capacity. To make this more effective, the county's municipalities would also have to agree to collect such fees.

Earlier this month, the Washington County Planning Commission discussed requiring developers of large subdivisions to donate land for school sites.

Ausherman Development has already offered the county 10 to 12 acres for a school to serve Westfields, a 773-unit development on Sharpsburg Pike.

Commissioner James Kercheval said he could see such a requirement being enacted in the "very near future."

Some members of the Planning Commission weren't so sure, saying that the county already charges a fee to address school capacity.

It's our feeling that the large developers like Ausherman wouldn't balk at such a requirement, since most parents want to live near the schools their children attend.

But if such a requirement is added, the county must craft it in such a way that any land donated isn't filled with rocks or other features that would make school construction difficult.

What will be more difficult to deal with is Blum's proposal to shut down the Mount Aetna Farms development. While we have reservations about the number of units proposed in an area that's already congested, isn't an urban area the place to put developments of greater density?

Washington County got into the situation it faces now by using flawed state population projections to justify not taking action to prepare for growth with adequate ordinances, fees and a realistically funded capital budget for the school system.

It's time now for city, county and school system officials to sit down and ensure that the new wave of residential development doesn't overwhelm the ability of the school system - or the average taxpayer - to deal with it.

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