BY CAITLYNN PEETZ
High-rise housing construction in parts of Rockville will be allowed to continue as student populations at Richard Montgomery and Walter Johnson high schools increase.
The Rockville City Council, after weeks of debate on whether to change rules to allow more students in school buildings that are crowded, voted 3-1 Monday night to permit residential building even if a school capacity threshold is reached.
Council member Beryl Feinberg, who raised concerns that crowding could mean adding portable classrooms and pose security issues, was the lone dissenting vote. Feinberg said the decision creates an iniquitous development system.
“This is clearly for one developer and one developer only at this point,” Feinberg said. “This provides a serious inequity among developers and the city could be subject to litigation.”
Much of the council’s discussion over the past weeks has centered around the possibility that if crowding at Richard Montgomery triggered a building moratorium, a development at Rockville Pike and Halpine Road, the Twinbrook Quarter Project, couldn’t proceed.
The project — including 11 buildings of residences, offices and shops — could bring nearly 3,500 jobs and 1,800 homes and expand the city’s tax base, several council members have said.
Councilman Mark Pierzchala, who had proposed raising the schools’ capacity cap, countered claims of special treatment for Twinbrook Quarter, a project of Bethesda-based developer B.F. Saul Co.
The developer and its attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Pierzchala’s proposal drew opposition from community groups, education activists and fellow Council members who said the increase would negatively impact students’ educational experience.
“I’m sorry this has been portrayed as a vote between education and other things. It is not a choice. The impacts are extremely low and delayed,” Pierzchala said. “Those (areas) are not just made up. … They are central to the economic well-being of the city.”
The council vote will give some “champion projects” an exemption from the school capacity rules test, which calculates the number of students a new residential development project would have.
If any impacted school’s enrollment is more than 120 percent of its capacity, development applications are generally denied. Pierzchala had suggesting increasing the formula to 150 percent.
The exemption will apply to developments in the area of Rockville Town Center and South Pike district to “allow for smart growth at transit stations,” according to the council’s resolution.
Only high-rise, multi-family developments to be constructed in phases over 10 or more years will be accepted.
Projections show Richard Montgomery would be 463 students – or 121 percent – over capacity by the 2023-2024 school year, and at 130 percent capacity by 2028.
Pierzchala voted for the exemption option, saying it would have the smallest impact while satisfying both sides of the argument.
“It’s better than what I proposed and I recognize that,” Pierzchala said. “I think it gives the Twinbrook Quarter project, and many others to come, another way to move forward.”