By Glynis Kazanjian
Two Montgomery County delegation leaders are at odds over a local bill that would strip the county’s two largest municipalities of their authority to rule on school construction projects.
The bill would grant the Montgomery County government sole authority to issue permits for new school buildings, remodeling projects and placement of portable classrooms. Currently, Rockville and Gaithersburg approve their own permits for school construction projects through their local zoning and building ordinances.
Senate delegation chair Rich Madaleno, District 18, introduced the bill in early November on behalf of the Montgomery County Board of Education, which was in a dispute with the Rockville government over the placement of two portable classrooms at College Gardens Elementary School.
Rockville denied the use of the portables, because it did not conform to the fire protection code in their Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO), Rockville Planning Director Susan Swift said.
The bill would require the school system to rely on county ordinances, said Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.
“Right now we follow the county’s permitting and planning policies, except in the cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg,” Tofig said. “We follow local municipality zoning regulations, but we’re a quasi-state authority so we are not required to do that . . . Generally we do that as a courtesy.
“The city of Rockville has some zoning requirements that are well beyond what’s called for in state and federal codes. So this bill would codify that MCPS gets permits and approvals from the county only, regardless of where the school is located in the county,” Tofig said.
House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, District 17, who represents Rockville, said the bill “is completely unnecessary.”
“Currently under law, the school board, with a two-thirds vote, can override a municipal government’s zoning decision,” Barve said. “In fact, that is exactly what they did in the case of Rockville. They unanimously voted to override the Rockville planning commission’s decisions. The question in my mind is this, if they have this power, why did they wait so long to use it?”
In September, the Montgomery school board requested a waiver to the city’s ruling that rejected placement of the two classroom trailers, but the city denied the request. The county board could have exercised its legal right to override the city’s decision with a two-thirds vote, but didn’t, according to Swift, the Rockville planning director.
“We know public agencies need to build things,” Swift said, and state law gives them an out. “We honestly don’t know why they didn’t pursue an override vote then.”
The school board didn’t put the issue on its agenda until December, when it voted 7-0 to override the city’s ruling.
The Parents Coalition of Montgomery County was upset at the timing of the bill’s introduction.
“The bill was posted for the public to see a day after the elections – the last day to submit a timely-filed bill,” said Janis Sartucci on behalf of the coalition. “The public was not allowed to vote on candidates based on their position on the legislation. This is a discussion we should have had during the election… Sen. Madaleno didn’t have the courtesy to announce these bills.”
Adam Fogel, a spokesman for Madaleno, said, “We wanted to make sure he was reelected before introducing legislation. You don’t want to be presumptuous and introduce legislation before you’re elected and re-elected. I don’t know why anyone would be upset over that.”
Barve said he still doesn’t know why the bill is needed, “unless they want the state legislature to do their dirty work for them.”
District 17 Dels. Luis Simmons and James Gilchrest also represent jurisdictions that would be affected by the law. Simmons favors the creation of a memorandum of understanding between Rockville and the county rather than legislative action.
Gilchrest wants proponents of the bill to explain why the power the school board has to override a municipality is not sufficient.
The bill was brought up in Annapolis at a county Land Use and Transportation Committee work session on Jan. 20, but the committee did not vote on it.