Gaithersburg can’t develop around its train station because of the law. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

We originally published this article on September 14, 2011. We're sharing it again because offers important lessons for the construction freeze that's moving ahead in Montgomery County right now.

The county has a construction moratorium in effect in parts of Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Bethesda, and it could expand to more areas in an attempt to address school capacity issues. The areas that could ban new houses from being built are also where most of the county's infill development is happening, so it would likely push growth to outlying areas and encourage sprawl.

A few years ago Gaithersburg adopted an ordinance to ensure that infrastructure keeps up with growth. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, the law turned out to be counterproductive, as it damaged the city’s ability to grow in the right places.

Gaithersburg has a big problem. On one hand, the city is trying very hard to promote smart growth. They’ve adopted beautiful master plans, and worked with developers to design some very strong projects. On the other hand, they have a crippling adequate public facilities ordinance that slaps a complete moratorium on residential development in large swaths of the city.

The city’s two hands are pulling in opposite directions. Mountains of genuinely good planning effort supports smart growth, but this one ordinance requiring excess school capacity throws a wrench into the whole business.

It’s especially maddening because of the way school boundaries are drawn. The most overcrowded schools happen to also cover most of Gaithersburg’s smart growth receiving areas, including its most walkable and transit-connected downtown and new urbanist districts.

For the most part it isn’t the smart growth developments that are overcrowding the schools (they tend to attract smaller families), but because they’re within the same school boundary as other neighborhoods that do produce a lot of kids, residential development is outlawed in precisely the areas where it’s most appropriate.

And the really bad news is that the moratorium isn’t effective at saving schools. Because Gaitheresburg is a geographically small jurisdiction within a larger, growing region, the school capacity test merely pushes growth out to other jurisdictions that have even less capacity, and less ability to plan.

In fact, the moratorium is doubly damaging because of the type of growth it is pushing away. By including these smart growth receiving zones in the moratorium, Gaithersburg is pushing out high-density urban developments that don’t produce many students, but are very effective at reducing sprawl and growth in congestion.

The school capacity test makes sense in a vacuum, but not when all the issues of urban development are considered together. It’s counterproductive, and should be changed.

The good news is that the Gaithersburg City Council, which does seem to sincerely want to do the right thing, realizes there’s a problem and is considering corrective measures. According to a Patch article, the council is looking to add flexibility and leniency to the ordinance. Proposed modifications could allow the council to grant exceptions in certain circumstances, or could allow neighboring schools to share capacity if one is over its limit but another nearby school is not. These are good suggestions.

The city might also consider designating official smart growth receiving zones that are automatically exempted from the ordinance altogether. That would allow the right sort of growth to take place in the right places, while still controlling the sort of growth that is a problem for school capacity.

Gaithersburg deserves credit for acknowledging a difficult problem and moving to solve it. Other jurisdictions with similar ordinances should follow Gaithersburg’s example and carefully consider whether or not their growth controls are accomplishing the right goals.