ROCKVILLE – As the city looks toward a Jan. 5 public hearing, there is still much disagreement over the city’s standards for adequate capacity in schools when considering development applications – including the mayor and council’s authority to change the standards.
The question of authority comes on the tails of vocal community opposition to changing the standards – most prominently from the West End Civic Association – and vocal support for changing the standards from Councilmember Tom Moore.
The Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance and Standards (APFO/APFS) try to make sure the existing public facilities will be able to serve new development and redevelopment.
For schools, Rockville evaluates program capacity for two years from the time an application is approved and does not allow development to bring the projected enrollment to more than 110 percent of program capacity per school. In contrast, the county evaluates program capacity for five years from the application date and sets the limit at 120 percent.
On Dec. 8, Chair of the Planning Commission Don Hadley said in his update he believes the mayor and council do not have authority to amend the school standards because they fall under Rockville’s Comprehensive Master Plan, which is Planning Commission territory. Under that assumption, the mayor and council would only be allowed to vote up or down a Planning Commission recommendation within 60 days, confirmed by a recent Attorney General letter to Mt. Airy, M.D.
Hadley cited the state requirements for a comprehensive plan as well as the policies of the city’s comprehensive master plan, which includes the policy to “ensure new growth does not occur without adequate public facilities, especially schools.”
But the city attorney responded to Hadley prior to the meeting and said the mayor and council did have the authority to proceed with the APFS because it is a resolution, which they control, rather than part of the comprehensive master plan.
“While the drafting of the master plan, as confirmed by the Attorney General’s Opinion discussed above, is under the authority of the Planning Commission, the adoption of ordinances implementing the recommendations of a master plan are under the authority of the local legislative body,” city attorney Debra Yerg Daniel wrote in a letter of advice to the mayor and council, which was made public Tuesday after the council voted 4-1 to waive privilege.
Hadley still recommended a third outside opinion.
“I wouldn’t mess with the APFS until I knew from the Attorney General’s office that I was in the right because otherwise everything you do is suspect. How are people going to rely on it?” he said.
Moore said he trusted Daniel’s response, particularly because of her expertise in land use law.
“She previously worked for the park and planning department and … of all the law she knows well, she knows this the best,” Moore said. “We’re going to proceed as we laid out a month ago.”
Even so, Mayor Bridget Newton said she wanted to investigate Hadley’s claims further and get an opinion from the Attorney General if necessary.
“Chairman Hadley dropped a bombshell on us Monday and the majority of the council agreed that we must get this information into the daylight and enable the conversation,” she said. “With all the opportunities we have in the city right now needing our full attention and cooperation, it is imperative that we stop fighting and get to working collaboratively.”
Hadley said even if the council has the authority to make changes, he believes the changes would conflict with the underlying goals regarding school capacity in the comprehensive plan. The General Assembly specified “development regulations” cannot be contrary to the master plan, according to the Attorney General’s letter to Mt. Airy.
Still up for debate is whether changing the city’s standards will be beneficial to Rockville residents.
On Nov. 17 Councilmember Moore gave a presentation about how he believes changing the city standards to match the county standards would benefit the city’s schools. Residents spoke out against the changes, saying the public hearing comes too soon and the county’s standards would only increase overcrowding.
But Moore said the APFO/APFS has “failed” Rockville and kept county money from going to Rockville schools, which he saw as one of the goals of the standards. He also projected the Richard Montgomery cluster will be in moratorium for the next 15 years because of Rockville’s standards.
“The question I want to answer is does the city gain any benefit from having standards that are different from the county’s? It’s clear that the answer is no. It’s not stopped our schools from getting overcrowded. It has not brought us more money. In fact we’ve lost some money because of different standards,” Moore said.
He referred to a memo to the Montgomery County Council from county staff on May 19, 2011, that recommended not giving funding to the cluster for the future capacity because the city APFS requires enough capacity to exist two years from the approval date, rather than five years as the county’s standards state.
“Rockville’s test counts capacity only from schools funded in the next two years, so even if the two Richard Montgomery Cluster PDFs remain, they would have no effect on the residential building moratorium in Rockville,” the memo reads.
Former Board of Education member Laura Berthiaume has said in the past that delays in funding for an addition to Julius West middle school and construction of an elementary school were not related to the APFO, but other scheduling concerns.
The West End Citizens Association (WECA) passed a resolution at its Nov. 20 meeting opposing any proposal to change the city’s standards to align with county standards.
“Unlike the county’s standards, (Rockville’s) actually do succeed in preventing more residential development (from) adding more students to county schools,” said Victoria McMullen, a vice president of WECA.
Some residents also said Rockville should be lobbying the county to impose its standards, rather than the other way around, to reduce overcrowding rather than help developers.
Moore said he would support this discussion happening at the county level, but for now Rockville’s standards hold the city back because of the discrepancy with the county.
“The only ones who can un-crowd our schools are the county and the state,” he said. “There’s quite a bit of debate about what the standards should be and that’s great. That should not be in Rockville City Hall … If the discussion about school standards is happening across the street at the County Council, that’s fantastic.”
Some residents said they felt the council had rushed the process to change the APFS. The mayor and council first placed it on the agenda at the Nov. 3 meeting and the staff came back with a redlined version of the changes for council discussion on Nov. 17. The public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 5 and the council is scheduled to vote Jan. 26.
“(You were) not directed to do anything on a red line,” said Mayor Bridget Newton of the Nov. 3 meeting when they placed the APFO on the future agenda. “So I’m curious if you could elaborate on how a red line came to be part of the discussion because it wasn’t part of the public discussion.”
Newton’s sentiment echoed that of a resident, Joseph Jordan, who spoke during the community forum.
“(Moore) never mentioned a specific section of the standards or ordinance. There was no direction given to staff to rewrite the school section, so I would like to know what made them think otherwise,” he said, before opposing the switch the county standards.
Staff said they thought the best way to see the effect of any changes was to create a red line document that would show what the Rockville APFO would look like if they replaced it with county standards.
Councilmember Virginia Onley also wanted to add a second public hearing on Jan. 26 because of the holidays, but no one seconded her motion.
Newton said if the mayor were able to second motions, she would have seconded Onley’s.
Moore said he did not second the motion to add a public hearing because the council was already making an effort to get public input by holding a public hearing at all, which is not required.