Carroll County Commissioners’ President Ed Rothstein discussed school redistricting, residential development and taxes Tuesday during two town hall meetings with county residents.
Rothstein, a Republican, represents District 5, which is in the southeastern portion of the county and includes Eldersburg and Sykesville. He was first elected to the Board of Carroll County Commissioners in 2018 and is running for reelection this year. Rothstein defeated two challengers in the Republican primary in July and is unopposed in the November general election.
The two town halls marked the first time Rothstein has met with constituents in a public forum since his primary win. Both the morning and evening sessions were held at the South Carroll Senior Center in Eldersburg.
During the morning town hall Rothstein discussed two planned housing developments in southern Carroll County — the Zabel property in Marriottsville, and the Beatty property in Eldersburg.
The Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission in 2021 began discussing a change in zoning on the Zabel property from mostly R-40,000, which allows one home per acre, to R-20,000, allowing two homes per acre, doubling the number of new homes allowed to be built in the area. Commissioners ultimately voted to keep the property zoned R-40,000 and conservation after residents submitted a petition expressing concern about increased traffic, overcrowded schools and an overloaded fire and EMS system.
On Tuesday, Jason Van Kirk, transportation planner with Elm Street Development, developers of the Zabel property, said a concept plan and traffic impact study were submitted and are under review by the county.
Plans for the development include 143 homes, with 12 units in the conservation area. The county will only issue 25 permits per year to build homes there.
Doug Brown, the county’s deputy director of public works, said the county will review the developer’s plans and make recommendations.
“Our number one concern is you, our bosses, who are taxpayers, and we look to see what we can do to best meet those needs, and we try to also make sure we’re working with the development community to get them to address that,” Brown said.
Children from that development would attend Carrolltowne Elementary School in Sykesville.
“All these homes will not be built overnight,” Rothstein said. “The fact is we can’t look at this in isolation. It has got to be tied to the schools … and to fire and EMS and to infrastructure. But we put the process in place where we’re only building 25 a year, so the impact on the schools is not going to be over dramatic.”
St. John’s Properties is planning to develop the Beatty Property at 1701 Bennett Road in Sykesville. The 120-acre parcel would be processed in four pieces: a northern residential district with seven single-family homes; a retirement village district with 149 units and a community center building; a business district with one-story flex buildings; and a southern residential district with a cluster development consisting of 34 homes.
A Beatty representative said a traffic study is currently under review and construction is expected to start in 2024, with the development completed in 2030. Children from this development would go to Freedom Elementary School in Sykesville.
Tuesday’s town hall also addressed the Carroll County Board of Education’s unanimous vote on Sept. 14, to seek bids for architectural and engineering studies that would determine the feasibility of building additions at Freedom Elementary and Sykesville Middle schools.
The school board decided to conduct the studies rather make a decision about options presented by the Southern Area Redistricting Committee late last month. The committee was formed in January to make recommendations to the school board about balancing enrollment and school capacity for all schools in the southern region of the county.
On Aug. 31 the committee published an 84-page report that included three options for redistricting between 697 and 1,095 students. Some options included longer bus rides and school start time changes for many students.
“When we look at redistricting there’s a lot that’s involved in it besides just the enrollment in each school,” Superintendent Cynthia McCabe said during the town hall meeting. “While we’ve looked at [those] numbers, and where we can move students, and come up with some different options, there’s some more work to be done now to add to the information we already have.
“One bit of information that we need is feasibility studies on two of the schools that we are looking at adding additions to,” she said. “Those would be Freedom Elementary and Sykesville Middle School. So, we need to get an idea if it would be feasible to add onto those schools, and if we could, what would the cost be and how will that affect which students we would ultimately have to move. Because as you can imagine we look to keep communities together as much as we can.”
Gail Montgomery, PTA president at Piney Ridge Elementary School in Eldersburg, served on the Southern Area Redistricting Committee.
“The southern area is saturated and there is currently no room in our schools,” Montgomery said. “No one in the southern district wants their kids bused to Westminster. No one wants to increase bus times. Initially, I thought the answer was developer impact fees to get revenue from developers to help pay for facilities. That would be great. Let’s get some money from developers. Let’s not charge the taxpayers.
“If collected perhaps these developer impact fees could pay for the capital improvements at our schools,” she said. “It’s my understanding the county commissioners have not collected impact fees for our schools since 2012.”
Impact fees are imposed by local governments on new development to help pay for new or expanded public services that will be required as a result of that development. In Carroll County, impact fees may be charged to offset the burden that new development creates on schools and parks.
The money collected for school impact fees can only be used to build new schools or additions to existing schools to increase capacity. But in October 2013, the commissioners set the school impact fee at zero. No one has been charged the impact fee since 2013, and the fee has been removed from the permitting process.
Declining school enrollment was the main reason to suspend the impact fees for schools. Currently, there are 25,400 students, kindergarten through 12th grade, in Carroll County Public Schools, officials said.
Ted Zaleski, the county’s director of budget and management, said impact fees are almost always misunderstood, and not easy to impose.
Zaleski said there was a time when the county had up to 1,700 permits per year, and impact fees were necessary. That number has dropped to 300 to 400 building permits annually.
“Our population is not growing,” he said. “Our school enrollment is not growing.”
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Finally, the idea of raising property taxes and income taxes to pay for schools was mentioned.
Currently, the property tax rate in Carroll is $1.018 per $100 of assessed value, and the income tax rate is 3.03%.
The county’s operating budget is funded 60% from property taxes, 30% from income taxes and the remainder from recordation taxes, an excise tax imposed by states as compensation for registering the sale of property.
Rothstein said the county commissioners have not raised property taxes in 20 years.
“I’m not saying we’re going to raise taxes now,” he said. “But it comes down to revenue.”
Rothstein said when budget discussions begin next year, they will include taxes.
“Taxes will be put on the table,” he said. “We’d be kicking ourselves if we do not look at taxes.”