No one on the Baltimore County Council can remember a more contentious — or more public — debate than the one over the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

Three public hearings, each one several hours long. Dozens of residents filing in to testify, from Board of Education members to housing developers and state delegates. And all of it over an ordinance designed to make sure that schools do not become overcrowded in the state’s third-most-populous county.

The bill that passed 4-2 on Monday evening adds an approval process for developers who want to build new housing. It augments a longstanding ordinance that requires the county to have enough roads, public utilities, and schools to accommodate new housing before it grants building permits. The original APFO, as it’s known, was enacted 20 years ago and defined an overcrowded school as one that is more than 115% over capacity, as opposed to the 100% or 105% that other counties in the region use. It also allowed developers to build if school capacity existed in an “adjacent” school capture area, even if that district could not practically serve the population.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has two weeks to veto the measure. If he does, the council will need five votes to override his veto.

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In an emailed statement, Olszewski said his administration shares concerns about school overcrowding and supports efforts to address it responsibly, “but our administration has also expressed valid challenges with this complex bill, including its detrimental impacts on Baltimore County’s moral and legal obligations to address attainable housing.”

“In light of those concerns and flurry of amendment activity, we will carefully review the final version of this legislation in the coming days to determine the appropriate next step,” he said.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. speaks during a press conference at the SBA’s Business Recovery Center at the CareFirst Engagement Center in Baltimore on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Monday’s measure gradually moves the threshold by which a school can be considered overcrowded down to 105%, eliminates the adjacency exemption, and establishes a committee to consider whether or not to issue a certificate for building. The aim is to make sure the area has school capacity prior to a permit being issued. The councilmen who introduced the bill voted for it: Democrats Mike Ertel and Izzy Patoka, the chair, as well as Republicans Wade Kach and David Marks.

“When you have a grossly overcrowded school, it’s just unconscionable to add more,” said Councilman Mike Ertel, whose district includes several overcrowded high schools. “It’s like we have a lifeboat of eight kids and we’re going to put 12 more in it.”

Councilman Pat Young, a Democrat, voted against the bill, saying he supported tackling school overcrowding but objected to outsourcing county functions to an unelected and untrained committee.

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“We’re ceding control to a body that has yet to be appointed. That has been my constant concern from the beginning,” Young said. Though another amendment requires the County Council to approve all committee members, Young still felt uncomfortable with the process.

He also objected to the bill’s process, where council members added several amendments to the bill after community and county staff feedback at several hearings. The bill was changed so much, Young said, that he didn’t feel he could make an informed decision. The legislation was also introduced four years after the County Council created the task force to come up with recommendations for improving the ordinance; since then, the county has slowly lost population and some families have moved to private schools due to the pandemic.

Councilman Todd Crandell, a Republican, was not present Monday. But he had previously expressed concerns about assumptions that development was the cause of overcrowded schools.

And Councilman Julian Jones, one of the council’s four Democrats, initially supported the legislation but withdrew his support after he learned more about it.

Among his concerns: that the aging, declining population of Baltimore County was going to lose out on development opportunities to neighboring jurisdictions that didn’t have such restrictions. One of his neighbors, he said, just moved to Harford County because he could get a larger house for his money there. Jones made several attempts to weaken the bill, but most of his amendments didn’t make it to a vote, and several that did failed.

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“The prudent thing for us to do is stop, publish all of the amendments, and include the school board in our deliberations,” Jones said. “But it appears there’s no stomach for that, so we’ll just move forward.”

Despite Jones’ repeated assertions that the process left out the school system, county school officials have been involved in the APFO deliberations for four years. On the 2020 task force, half of the eight members came from the school system. They include: Maureen Astarita, the principal of the overcrowded Parkville High School, who represented the Council of Administrative & Supervisory Employees; Julie Henn, vice chair, of the county school board; Jayne Lee, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County; and Lisa Norrington, a teacher at Patapsco High School who represented the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

Nevertheless, the county school system sent in 30 “red-lined” amendments, which legislative counsel Thomas H. Bostwick dutifully read until Marks interjected that the changes would kill the bill as intended. The council rejected the amendments, with Kach saying school administrators could have their say when the county and school board developed a memorandum of understanding on how to implement the legislation.

“We had a work session on Tuesday. Where was the school system then?” Kach asked.

Patoka added that the bill was the focus of three public hearings, including one in which close to 40 concerned citizens and developers testified. Henn testified in favor of the ordinance, but school board chair Tiara D. Booker-Dwyer said that she had many concerns about it. That, said Jones, left him unsure of where the school system stood.

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Debates on the APFO were unprecedented in recent memory, in part because of a renewed commitment to transparency.

Patoka speculated that, under previous councils, there would have been only one public hearing. Monday night, debate went on for three hours and included 27 amendments on the floor from council members — many from Jones — in addition to the 30 from the school system. One developer who has attended every session said 99% of his suggestions made the final bill; Patoka said many of the other amendments were inspired by other lawmakers and county employees.

Jones maintains that overcrowded schools are still excellent.

“An overcrowded school is not a bad thing. Have you been to Disneyland? There’s a reason it’s crowded. Everyone wants to be there,” Jones said at a hearing in May.

Two black and white yard signs, one that reads "save suburbia, no new light rail, no TOD, no apartments" and the other "no apartments, no compromise" are staked into the grass in front of a suburban street with cars and single family homes in the background.
Signs opposing plans to redevelop the area around the Lutherville light rail station are scattered throughout a nearby neighborhood. (Daniel Zawodny)

But overcrowded schools mean students are sometimes eating lunch closer to breakfast time, having to use a homeroom for gym class, or having to walk far to outside trailers. Sometimes, the school needs to hold an assembly two or three times so everyone can attend. Fights can erupt in crowded hallways. Dismissal queues can take more than an hour. Educators have long agreed that overcrowded schools are not ideal learning environments. Students pay less attention to lessons, behavior issues erupt and facilities deteriorate.

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While Jones has said that only 11 out of 176 public schools are overcrowded, Ertel and others have disputed that. The Baltimore Sun reported that nearly a third of the county’s schools are at or over capacity. A study from Sage Policy Group in 2018 predicted that nearly every county high school would be overcrowded by 2027.

Many developers who testified said they worried that the current bill would make it harder to build housing and that redistricting schools would be a better solution to ease crowding. The school system has already changed school boundaries five times in the past two years through a lengthy process called a boundary study.

Baltimore County entered into an agreement with federal housing authorities to add 1,000 units of affordable housing by 2027. The county is challenged to meet the requirement as many communities want to block proposed affordable units. Those include developments in Lutherville at a mostly vacant shopping center as well as in historic East Towson, where residents continue to fight a 56-unit complex called Red Maple.

Many other counties solve school-capacity issues by charging impact fees, which developers pay to offset the consequences of construction. In Anne Arundel County, impact fees bring in millions of dollars each year, and the threshold for overcrowding is 100%. But Baltimore County didn’t have developer impact fees in place until 2020. Thanks to developer exemptions, the county brought in zero dollars in fiscal years 2023 and 2021, according to The Sun.

County spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said she was not sure what Olszewski would do. He is running for the congressional seat now held by U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who is not seeking reelection.