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ROCKVILLE — After much deliberation, the Rockville Mayor and Council voted on Feb. 4 to amend the city’s zoning law as it relates to school capacity and overcrowding.
In a 3-1 vote, Councilmember Beryl Feinberg cast the sole vote opposing the motion to provide exemptions to the city’s Adequate Public Facilities Standards (APFS) ,which limits development once a school reaches 120 percent capacity.
The amendment allows the city to grant exemptions to developments based on certain conditions, which would be discussed by the mayor and council during an individual development-application process.
“Increasing the APFS to one-fifty or granting an exemption for one district … sends the message that Rockville prioritizes developer needs over our children’s education, school security and safety and further overcrowd[s] schools,” Feinberg said before the vote. “This is clearly a carve-out for one developer and one developer only.”
Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and council members Virginia D. Olney and Mark Pierzchala voted in favor of the motion.
The issue, which gripped the city for months, mainly centers on the growth capacity of Richard Montgomery High School and allowing development in the Twinbrook corridor – a proposed development designated as a champion project that would occupy a strip of land along Rockville Pike (MD 355) near the Twinbrook Metro station.
The city defines a “champion project” as a development in the South Pike area of the city.
Before the vote, development in the city would be under a moratorium, should the student population of Richard Montgomery High School exceed 120 percent capacity.
Pierzchala, a proponent of the measure, said school capacity projections within MCPS “isn’t the problem” and instead emphasized the issue of the county’s school construction budget. He added that foreseeable development in the city would have a “very low” impact on school capacity.
“For what we can do right now it is a very good compromise,” Pierzchala concluded.
Onley, a perceived ally of Pierzchala on the Team Rockville bloc of the council, expressed her support for the measure, saying she wanted the council to do “what is best for the city and economic development while not overcrowding the schools.”
Speaking of the Twinbrook Corridor project, Newton said she hopes the proposed development will “bridge the divide” between the east and western portions of Rockville, which are separated by a railroad.
“We’ve been talking about that for years, more connectivity between the east side and west side,” she added.
In addition to the exemption option, Rockville Chief of Planning Jim Wasilak outlined three other options for the council to consider when amending the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO).
One option is making no changes to the standards and keeping the 120-percent cap in place. This option would also allow the city to grant conditional approval if requested by the applicant.
Another option would increase the capacity standard above 120 percent, but that change would apply only within the Rockville Town Center Performance District and South Pike areas.
A third option would allow the city to grant waivers based on criteria yet to be developed by the mayor and council.
Wasilak also suggested that the mayor and council could also craft a fifth “viable” option if needed.
Numerous residents made comments on both sides of the issue. Unlike other city councils, Rockville does not require people to state their names when they come forward o make public statements.
“I am not opposed to development; I am opposed to this development at this time,” one woman said, adding that she has a child in the school system. “Twinbrook is already vibrant, has transit, and further development can occur at the appropriate time.”
“The APFO was never intended to solve the [school overcrowding] problem,” one man said. “The APFO was meant to keep it from getting worse as a result of new development … Montgomery County has a relaxed limit [more than other counties] at 120 percent, and then we wonder why MCPS is always playing catch-up when it comes to school capacity.”
“Rarely do we get to hear from young voices whom these projects impact,” said another man. “Champion projects are extremely beneficial to millennials, future generations, and the city as a whole. Many of the younger people I’ve talked to have said it is difficult to find attractive, affordable places to live in this area.”
Brigitta Mullican, a supporter of changing the standards, emphasized that those in support of the amendments also understand the importance of education. She added. She added that the council has “no control” over school capacity and should “find the right balance.”