Montgomery Row by EYA was started before the building moratorium in Montgomery County, Md.
Courtesy EYA Montgomery Row by EYA was started before the building moratorium in Montgomery County, Md.

On July 1, Montgomery County, Md., imposed a one-year building moratorium on residential construction in selected areas of the closer-in suburbs that cover about 12% of the county’s land area. The strategy is puzzling to many who live in the major metropolitan market that is also experiencing a housing shortage.

The area affected by the moratorium covers 60 square miles and is home to almost 30 schools. In addition to the moratorium, the transportation and school impact taxes—paid by builders and developers—were raised in an effort to provide more funding for the school system. The school impact tax was raised 14% for a single-family home, going from $23,062 to $26,207; for a low-rise multifamily building, developers must now pay 10% more, an increase from $19,937 per unit to $21,961. The thinking behind the moratorium and the raised taxes is rooted in the notion that new students coming from new developments are overcrowding existing schools; however, data indicates something else may be in play.

Popularity of the SuburbsAs the District of Columbia continues its work on improving its school system, a familiar pattern has emerged for many young families in the area: Young married couples typically stay in the city until they have children old enough for school, whereupon they seek out housing and better educational opportunities offered in the suburbs, such as in Montgomery County. Home to nearly a million people, Montgomery County is one of the most affluent and best educated places in the country. But the building moratorium recently put in place has many deep thinkers scratching their heads.

“The moratorium was supposed to help elected officials with school crowding, but it helps them in a really blunt and counterproductive way,” says Jane Lyons, Maryland advocacy manager for the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It’s hurting the housing crises in the county.”

Jane Lyons, Coalition for Smarter Growth
Courtesy Coalition for Smarter Growth Jane Lyons, Coalition for Smarter Growth

While the moratorium on new development might delay more families moving to the county, it doesn’t account for empty nesters who are selling their homes to families with children. “The planning department’s data shows that only about 4% of the new students in the six most crowded high school clusters are living in housing that was built within the last few years,” says Casey Anderson, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board. “Most of the overcrowding is coming from neighborhood turnover of existing houses, and stopping new development will do nothing or almost nothing to help the problem.”

The moratorium is not a popular policy with smart growth proponents, developers, builders, or the county’s own planning board. Trying to understand where the idea originated and how it became law leads to discussions of politics, NIMBYism, and the public’s misunderstanding of how real estate development and school capacity are actually two separate issues.

Anderson has tried to clarify the issue by writing and publishing a four-part blog post called “Schools and Growth,” complete with charts, graphs, and tables that break down the issue and attempts to explain the fine print.

Casey Anderson chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board
Courtesy of MCPB Casey Anderson chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board

“Most people assume if you build more housing, you get more students, and if you don’t build more housing, you don’t get more students,” he says. “The experience that we’ve had over the last few years shows us that’s not necessarily true. In fact, it may not be anywhere near true.”

Similar Stories, Different Locations What’s happening in the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C., is not unique. In April 2018, Mary Lou Bergeron, the superintendent of schools in Lawrence, Mass., about 30 miles north of Boston, pleaded her case of school overcrowding to The Eagle-Tribune. She pegged the issue to a number of former industrial mills that have been converted to mixed-income apartment communities.

School crowding also became a troublesome issue earlier this year in Gallatin, Tenn., 30 miles north of Nashville. The issue eventually sparked calls for the resignation of the director of schools.

Mount Pleasant, the fourth largest municipality in South Carolina located directly across the river from Charleston, in January imposed restrictions on building permits that cut construction levels by one-third compared with years past. The city has about 88,000 residents, with almost half of them added since the year 2000. According to an article published in The Post and Courier, councilman Joe Bustos, who was the leading proponent of the restrictions, believes the town is losing money on every house that gets built. “To me, slowing growth is an important thing for this town,” he said. “Otherwise we are emptying the treasury.”

What’s the Answer? In trying to understand what’s gone wrong in these areas that are experiencing building restrictions and school overcrowding, there are plenty of likely suspects, including long-range planning that couldn’t predict changing commuter trends and unseen demographic forces.

“I might be able to predict how many students will be in the school system across the county in five or six years,” Anderson says. “But if you ask me to predict how many students are going to be in one elementary school in five or six years, that is much harder to predict. A small number of students can make a lot of difference.”

Developers building in Montgomery County have been working to have the moratorium lifted or amended into a format that makes sense. Projects that were approved before the moratorium went into effect have been allowed to move forward, and some adjustments have been made for developing sites occupied by blighted buildings or projects that classify as affordable. “Those were extremely narrow exemptions and probably only benefit two or three projects in the entire county, but that illustrates the pressure on local government,” says Anderson.

In South Carolina’s Mount Pleasant, two subdivisions already in progress will be allowed to continue per development agreements put in place before the permit crackdown. Additions, renovations, and low-income housing are also exempt. The town had growth limits in place from 2001 to 2008. When the economy came back, the limits came off–until recently.

The school systems themselves are also getting a closer look. The situation in Lawrence, Mass., was made worse by the fact that the school system was in receivership and owned by the state at the time of the controversy. Raising the cap on classroom sizes and rezoning offers potential, but those are not popular options. In Tennessee, the answer was a combination of school district rezoning in a two-year period as a short-term fix, combined with building a new school to address long-term concerns.

Building new schools or reopening closed ones are not quick solutions to overcrowding in Montgomery County. Nobody likes using portables—temporary structures that serve as classroom space—which takes the question down other unpopular paths. “Reinstating school facility payments in areas that are overcrowded is one answer, making sure that teardowns pay their fair share with tax fees,” says Lyons of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “Revisiting school design standards so schools can be built in more flexible places is another.” The coalition points out that schools used to occupy less ground with multi-story buildings, but modern designs seem to favor single-story structures, which require more land.

McLean Quinn, EYA
Courtesy of EYA McLean Quinn, EYA

Moving Past MoratoriumsThe building moratorium in Montgomery County is supposed to last a year, and skepticism abounds regarding how effective it will be. For developers considering projects in the D.C. metro area, higher impact fees combined with off-limit locations are a double whammy. “The impact taxes are multiples of what you pay in D.C. or Northern Virginia locations,” says McLean Quinn, president of EYA, a builder and developer based in Bethesda, Md. “The cost of a building permit in Montgomery County can be five or 10 times more than other locations. There’s a lot of difficulty in the regulatory environment, and a lot of NIMBY activity, and that really constrains growth.”

Quinn notes that parents often are quick to raise concerns when his firm is presenting new projects. “If I’m standing up in front of a community group presenting a project that we want to get approved in the county, the most vocal critics that I’ll have are the parents who come up and say, ‘My son or daughter has been in a classroom trailer at their elementary school for the last three years. How many new kids is this project going to generate?’”

Assuming some of the new students overcrowding the schools are coming from urban-loving millennial parents, the problem could get worse before it gets better. “As a millennial, I don’t particularly want to live in a single-family home neighborhood where I have to drive everywhere,” says Lyons. “I’d like to live in a triplex or a duplex or even a multifamily apartment building if I were to have kids, but those options don’t always exist. And if they do exist, they are very expensive. That’s why I think it’s important not to restrict the county’s options and have a diverse array of housing options.”