The Impact of Development on Schools
One of the critical parts of developing any sector plan is determining the impact on schools. There is an element of this during each step of the planning process (for an overview of the planning process, click here). During the phase we are currently in, the Planning Department works with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) to estimate the impact the development will have on schools. Depending on the estimated impact, the Planning Board could take several paths.
It is important to point out at this point that not all sector plans are the same. Sector plan areas vary in size, topography, and most importantly, the type of development proposed. For example, plans that proposed single family residences would generate elementary school children at a rate of about 32 per hundred units (middle school is about 14 and high school is about 13). Apartments in a multi-family high or mid-rise building with structured parking housing (similar to those being proposed at Chevy Chase Lake) generate elementary school students at a much lower rate, four students per hundred units. This varies slightly based on unit size and type. Impact also varies by grade level. These same apartments generate fewer middle school students (approximately four per hundred units), and even fewer high school students (3 per hundred). The generation rates for low-rise, garden style apartments are about 15/6/7 (elementary/middle/high school) and townhomes are approximately 21/12/11. These generation rates come to us from MCPS and we spoke with the Director of Long Range Planning at MCPS to confirm these numbers are still reliable.
With these numbers in mind, the planning board looks at the number of students the development will generate during the life of the plan. In the case of very large sector plans, like White Flint, the Planning Board will identify a location for a school. In that case the sector plan calls for over 9000 new housing units over the life of the plan (30+ years), and they will generate slightly over 400 elementary school students. That plan was also 430 acres, with some large property owners. So the County saw fit to reserve a site for an elementary school. I think it goes without saying that Chevy Chase Lake is much, much smaller. The land under consideration for redevelopment by the Chevy Chase Land Company is only about 15 acres. The average middle school site is 10-12 acres. It is important to note that school site selection is solely the purview of the Board of Education. The Planning Department, County Council, and property developers have no control over this process.
What is often lost in the conversation is what really drives an increase in school enrollment. A neighborhood of 1000 single family homes generates approximately 320 elementary school students. In an older, more established, neighborhood with a high rate of ‘empty nesters’ housing turnover can cause significant jumps in enrollment, as a house with no school age children can add 5 almost overnight. This is also very hard for MCPS to estimate, as market conditions are very hard to predict. Since existing single family homes aren’t going anywhere that means the ability to limit significant increases in enrollment is almost impossible. The number of students shifting from private to public schools is also hard to predict, as it is based highly on the state of the economy. So what role does the development of an apartment building have in helping or hurting school enrollment issues?
First, the developer still must pay impact fees that are dedicated for school construction. This is a per unit fee that the developer pays regardless of how many students are generated by the development. When a plan that includes residential comes before the Planning Board, they must determine if the area is “open’” to additional development based on the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) and County Growth Policy. According to the schools test in these policies the plan must comply with one of three conditions:
- There is currently adequate capacity in the school cluster; or
- If the cluster is over capacity then a payment is collected at the time of building permit. These payments must be used to build capacity in the impacted cluster; or
- If development is frozen by severe over use of the cluster, development may be approved only after additional capacity is in the capital improvement plan or enrollment drops.
Second, tax revenue from the development of a new apartment building (property taxes, etc.) greatly exceeds that of what is created by single family homes on equivalent land area. The County currently competes for younger professionals with the District and Northern Virginia. Capturing that tax base by providing housing like we are in Chevy Chase Lake is critical to funding all the amenities we have come to enjoy. In the case of Chevy Chase Lake, the estimated financial impact is over $200 million dollars to the County. That would build about eight elementary schools. Let us be clear though. Obviously only the County can determine how to allocate its budget. The Chevy Chase Land Company has absolutely NO ability to direct tax revenues for certain purposes, but additional revenue from development (like we are proposing at Chevy Chase Lake) can provide the County needed revenue to make the proper decisions regarding school construction and capacity.
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