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School Capacity, SAPFO Hot Topics for Commissioners

The joint planning public hearing covered various future ordinances but centered on the Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance Memorandum of Understanding.

Craig Benedict, Orange County planning director, explained the technicalities of the proposed SAPFO memorandum -- a joint agreement that attempts to synchronize area development and school construction -- to the semicircle of local officials.

It has historically been the county commissioners' responsibility to provide enough schools for the population, but Commissioner Alice Gordon said they have no control over available land because the towns issued their own building permits.

"We have to get coordinated," Gordon said. "If we can pass the memorandum and get facilities in place, then we can project out and plan around future facilities."

Benedict highlighted seven methods of estimating student growth that must be applied in order to schedule the construction of new schools.

Three of the methods are approved with the memorandum of understanding, but the last four must be approved separately.

So far Chapel Hill is the only municipality to approve the memorandum, but all of the municipalities, including Carrboro, Hillsborough, Orange County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County boards of education, must approve it for the memorandum to stay afloat.

"This provides synchronization of new development and school needs," Benedict said. "It is a very important issue in Orange County."

But the hot topic was not the methods that would be used to project growth. Discussion centered on whether a moratorium would be placed on development because of a provision in the memorandum.

The memorandum would place a relatively low threshold on school capacity, which current schools are close to meeting.

If the school capacity is met, development is unable to proceed until new schools are built.

But officials say new schools are currently being built to deal with overcrowding when it happens. Gordon said she did not think problems would arise.

"The only thing we still have to attend to is the new high school in Chapel Hill, and if our figures are correct, we can start the SAPFO memorandum without initiating a moratorium," Gordon said. "I don't think we're behind right now."

But Gordon said she is looking forward to seeing the memorandum passed because it will make the process more organized and efficient.

"Cary has a similar plan, but it's not really common in North Carolina," Gordon said.

"It's pretty exciting and very innovative."

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