Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Should Prince George’s Continue to Validate Sprawl?

Photo by Mark Strozier on Flickr
The approvals for many long-ago approved, but still-unbuilt, single-family suburban sprawl projects in Prince George’s County are set to expire on December 31, 2013. But for the fifth year in a row, the County Council is considering legislation that would extend the validity periods for those developments for yet another year. Is this a good idea?

On Wednesday, October 2, the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee will consider three bills that would toll all deadlines for preliminary subdivision, site plan, and design plan approvals. The practical effect of these bills (CB-70-2013, CB-71-2013, and CB-75-2013) is that development plans that were approved as far back as January 2003 would remain valid through December 31, 2014.

By law, most preliminary subdivision plans are valid for only 2 years, and most site plans are valid for only 3 years. Some subdivision and site plans are valid for up to 6 years. However, for the past 4 years, since 2009, the County Council has passed bills that suspended these validity periods by a year. Thus, any development plan that was valid on January 1, 2009, has basically gotten a 4-year extension. These bills would give them yet another year of validity.

The extensions were originally designed to provide flexibility to developers, in light of the economic downturn that hit the housing market so hard. Council members believed the extensions would “help prevent the wholesale abandonment of approved projects and activities due to the present unfavorable economic conditions.”

But today, in 2013, the housing market in Prince George’s is steadily rebounding. Thus, there’s no longer an economic rationale for continuing to extend these deadlines. Moreover, recent analysis by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) suggests that it might be good to let some of these projects expire.

Additional sprawl housing disadvantages the county

Nearly 80 percent of the existing approved residential development in the Prince George’s County pipeline consists of low-density single-family residences located outside the Beltway, far away from transit. County planners have warned that this level of sprawl development is damaging to the county’s overall transit-oriented development goals and puts the county at a distinct disadvantage for attracting new residents in the future.

Pipeline Development as of December 2011. Image by M-NCPPC.

First, this type of scattered development makes it “difficult to establish a critical mass of high-density development around any existing Metro station, as envisioned by the General Plan.” Second, the construction of additional suburban single-family housing units is not helping the county to meet future market demand for new housing.

Relying on two separate studies of housing demand conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) and George Mason University, county planners expect that Prince George’s will need to add up to 52,000 new housing units over the next 20 years. However, to meet the forecasted demand, more than 60% of these units (i.e., more than 31,200 units) will need to be multifamily units located in compact, walkable communities near transit. That means only about 20,800 new single-family units will be needed in the county over the next two decades.

M-NCPPC warns that “[w]ithout a recalibration of county priorities and policies that promote TOD and high-quality, mixed-use development, it is likely that the county will be at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide.”

Letting the validity periods expire may be best

So what should the county do with its current development pipeline? According to M-NCPPC, as of December 2011, there were 14,991 approved single-family housing units in the pipeline. That accounts for nearly 70% of the projected future need for single-family housing in the county over the next 20 years. Eighty-eight percent of those approved housing units, or 13,247 units, were located outside of the Beltway, away from transit. Only 7%, or 1,105 units, were located inside of the Beltway.

I couldn’t find any figures from M-NCPPC that detail how many of the pipeline units remained valid only as a result of the various extension bills passed by the council since 2009. However, it’s safe to assume that a significant portion of those projects were approved prior to 2009, since there were fewer development projects moving forward in the height of the Great Recession.

The county’s land use policies have changed significantly since 2009. New subregional master plans and/or area master plans are in place for almost all significantly populated areas in the county. Additionally, the county has adopted stronger stormwater management standards and complete streets policies. And the county is currently revamping its General Plan. Many of the older single-family developments in the pipeline are not in line with these new and forthcoming land use policies.

By simply taking no further action to extend the validity periods on preliminary subdivision plans, site plans, and design plans, the County Council could significantly reduce the backlog of pipeline development. This is a step that M-NCPPC believes would serve the county well. In addition to helping slow down suburban sprawl, such a move would also allow previously proposed-but-unbuilt developments to be reevaluated under current land use policies.

If you believe the county should not take further action to validate sprawl, please take a moment to urge the PZED Committee to table CB-70, CB-71, and CB-75. You can address your comments to PZED Chair Mel Franklin (mrfranklin@co.pg.md.us), with copies to committee director Jackie Brown (jwbrown@co.pg.md.us) and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone (BJStone@co.pg.md.us).

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