Monday, November 3, 2014

Everyone's Weighing in on Prince George's Term Limits

Photo by DayofGlory
On Saturday, I urged my fellow citizens to Vote “No” on Question J this Tuesday, November 4. Question J is a local ballot measure that would allow current and future county executive and county council members in Prince George’s to serve up to three consecutive terms, totaling 12 years. The current limit is two terms, or eight years—and right now, Prince George’s is the only metro-area county that imposes any term limits on its legislators and executives.

Last evening, the Washington Post editorial board took a different view, urging county citizens to vote “Yes” on Question J. The Post editors argue that the current two-term limit, established by voters in 1992 and twice reaffirmed by them prior to this effort, was once a “useful…means to ensure infusions of new blood” in the county. But now, they claim, “the county has changed, and its rules should evolve too.” They see a county that is “more engaged than in the past” and that has elected a more capable crop of leaders.

As evidence of the county’s supposed change, the Post editors point to the recent defeat of incumbent Superior Court clerk Marilynn Bland in the Democratic primary election in June. They labeled Bland, a former two-term council member and board of education member, as “notoriously unethical” and celebrated her ouster as “the right way to set limits on elected officials.”

But by the Post’s own reporting, Bland has been a constant source of disdain and embarrassment for the county for most of her 18 years in public office. Yet, she was still easily reelected on multiple occasions to multiple offices. Indeed, she left her post as a county councilmember in 2010, only after the expiration of her second term—because of the current term limit provisions.

Other than the recent example with Bland, no other incumbent county elected official has been defeated at the polls in more than a generation. So it’s somewhat curious to see the Post hanging its hat on one aberrational result in a very low turnout primary election.

A few hours after the Post’s editorial endorsement, the Washington Times reported that the Question J ballot initiative is being largely funded by big developer interests. This is a particularly troublesome revelation, given the county’s long and sordid history of developer-fueled corruption, which sent the previous county executive, Jack Johnson, and his councilmember wife, Leslie Johnson, off to federal prison.

Joseph Kitchen, former president of the Prince George's Young Democrats, suggested that I and the other Question J opponents hadn't made a very convincing case against the measure, even through he too voted against Question J. Assuming that's true, I would argue that the proponents of Question J have made an even worse case for changing the status quo—especially given the Post's threadbare rationale coupled with the Times' findings regarding the heavy developer funding of this effort.

Please weigh in with your comments for or against Question J. More importantly, if you haven't already done so, please weigh in tomorrow, November 4, at the polls!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Extending Term Limits in Prince George’s is a Bad Idea

Just Say "NO" to Question "J"
When it comes to statewide and county elections, Prince George’s County has one of the lowest political participation rates in the State of Maryland. This year, greedy and self-centered incumbent public officials are seeking to take advantage of the county’s apathetic electorate by giving themselves a chance to stay in office for up to 12 years, instead of the current limit of 8 years. The citizens of Prince George’s County have the power to stop this attempted power-grab by voting “NO” on Question “J” this Tuesday, November 4.

State law establishes a 4-year term for county executives and county council members, but individual counties get to decide whether to establish limits on the number of consecutive terms those officials can serve. In 1992, the citizens of Prince George’s County amended their charter to establish a 2-term, 8-year maximum for county officials.

Almost immediately, county officials started trying to undo those limits. In 2000, the county’s first African American executive, Wayne Curry, worked with a young state delegate named Rushern Baker III to campaign for a repeal of term limits. That well-financed effort failed miserably, as did several other efforts—but that didn’t deter Curry’s young protégé from trying to undo the will of the people.

In 2010, Baker was elected as Prince George’s county executive. Earlier this year, he and the county council handpicked a “charter review commission” to recommended changes to the county’s charter. One of the commission’s recommendations was to extend the current 2-term limit provision to a 3-term limit, thereby allowing elected officials to serve a total of 12 consecutive years. The commission freely acknowledged that this was merely an interim measure, and that full repeal of term-limits was their ultimate goal.

To be clear: I don’t think term limits are always a good thing, particularly on the local level. Indeed, most of the other local governments in the Washington metropolitan region—including neighboring Montgomery County—operate without term limits. Also, in theory at least, the electorate always has the power to effectively impose a term limit on incumbents by simply voting them out of office and choosing another candidate at the next election.

And that’s exactly the argument that Baker and his allies on the council, like Council Chair Mel Franklin, have been advancing. “You don’t want them there? Kick their asses out,” Baker told a skeptical Democratic Central Committee crowd in September, as he pressured them into endorsing the proposal. “What this boils down to is whether you believe voters are mature enough to get rid of someone they are tired of.” Similarly, Council Chair Franklin argues that extending the term limits for Prince George’s officials will allow county officials the time needed to gain the experience necessary to become effective regional leaders.

Unfortunately, as Baker and Franklin know full well, arguments about voter choice don’t really resonate well in the context of the current politically feckless Prince George’s County electorate. Voter turnout and awareness is abysmal during each county election, and the troublesome campaign financing structure that allows groups of candidates to form political “slates” virtually guarantees that incumbents will be reelected each time they run. In fact, Baker and Franklin both are running unopposed in this election, as they did in the Democratic primaries, and many other incumbent council candidates similarly faced little or no opposition. Thus, a vote to extend term limits essentially ensures that county officials will be in place for 12 years.

Likewise, the additional experience argument rings quite hollow. It’s simply preposterous for county officials to suggest that they need two or four years to learn how to do their jobs before they can really start serving the people’s interests. As south county activist Bill Cavitt has eloquently pointed out, “Candidates for county executive and county council ought to have significant experience as citizen activists before running for these offices.” In other words, if it takes a candidate two or more years to learn the ropes, maybe they shouldn’t be running in the first place.

There may well come a time when the elimination of term limits will make sense for Prince George’s County. When that time comes, the effort will be led by the citizens of the county—not by the very politicians that stand to gain directly from the extension. For now, we should just say “No” to Question “J.”

Monday, May 19, 2014

Prince George’s adopts “Sprawl Plan 2035” over community objections

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr
It was supposed to be different this time. Prince George’s County’s new general plan was supposed to embrace a bold new vision for a more sustainable and transit-oriented growth strategy. Sadly, the county ultimately decided to cling to its previous failed approach of mouthing platitudes of support for walkable urban development around transit stations, while actively facilitating suburban sprawl outside of the Beltway and far away from transit.

County residents and smart growth advocates feared this eventuality when planners released the preliminary draft of Plan Prince George’s 2035, the updated countywide comprehensive plan for long-term growth and development, last fall. The draft placed too much emphasis on outer-Belway sprawl, ignored the revitalization needs of most inner-Beltway communities, and downplayed neighborhood Metro stations. At the same time, the draft plan supported massive greenfield development outside the Beltway—both at mixed-use “suburban centers” like Konterra and Westphalia, and also in scattered single-family residential subdivisions.

Each subsequent revision of the plan only made matters worse. When the Planning Board adopted its version of the plan in March, it added hundreds of acres to the exiting suburban Bowie Regional Center, which was already too disconnected from transit and well in excess of the half-mile radius that usually typifies a transit station area.

Likewise, when the County Council approved its version of the general plan earlier this month, it removed hundreds of additional acres of woodlands from the rural preservation area and placed them into the “established communities” area, making them eligible for further sprawl development. The council also added language specifically endorsing automobile-oriented suburban “town centers,” stating they “help[ed] fulfill countywide goals.”

Planners and council members repeatedly rebuffed calls for TOD fixes to plan

Ostensibly, the county's comprehensive planning process is designed to elicit meaningful public input regarding the substance of the planners’ drafts of the plan. In reality, though, the Planning Board and the County Council chose to ignore and sidestep the reforms urged by the public. They failed at nearly every turn to give fair consideration to ideas that would have helped the plan actually live up to its lofty policy pronouncements.

This pattern of public officials being dismissive of the public’s views unfortunately happens during most comprehensive planning processes in Prince George’s County—but it was supposed to be different this time.

When planners held their first town hall meeting about Plan Prince George’s last June, they appeared to be wedded to a strategy of picking 3 Metro station areas as “downtowns” and focusing most of their energies at those stations. I wondered aloud at the time whether their methodology for selecting high-performing stations was sound, whether they had a plan for how the remaining Metro, MARC, and Purple Line stations would develop over the next 20 years, and whether the planners’ continued encouragement of suburban greenfield development in “new town” centers made sense in light of what they were saying about the county’s need to focus on TOD.

Later that summer, I developed a more detailed policy paper (summarized here), setting forth various recommendations as to how planners could build upon their “3 downtowns” model by including policies and strategies that would help the county grow more smartly beyond its desired central business districts. I shared early drafts of the document with county planners and met with them to discuss it in detail.

The planners said they were surprised, but pleased, that a citizen had taken the time to develop such a comprehensive presentation. They indicated they would give serious consideration to the ideas expressed in the paper as they developed their initial draft of Plan Prince George’s. Yet, when the draft finally emerged, it did not reflect any of the policies or strategies suggested in the policy paper.

By the time the preliminary draft plan was before the Planning Board for review in March of this year, more than 100 citizens and public officials from across the county had signed a petition urging county officials to reconsider the land use priorities as expressed in the preliminary plan. Among the petition’s signatories were Maryland State Senator Joanne C. Benson, Capitol Heights Mayor Kito James, Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene W. Grant, Forest Heights Mayor Jacqueline Goodall, and a host of civic leaders representing all 9 council districts. The Planning Board ignored these pleas and forwarded its sprawl-enhanced version of the plan to the County Council for approval on March 6.

On March 20, the petition group provided the council with a detailed set of proposed amendments to the Planning Board’s adopted version of the plan (summarized here). The Coalition for Smarter Growth also mounted an email campaign against many of the sprawl enhancements proposed by county officials.

Ultimately, the County Council turned a blind eye toward the petitioners and smart growth advocates, just as the Planning Board had. Led by council members Ingrid Turner (District 4) and Derrick Leon Davis (District 6), the council voted to approve "Sprawl Plan 2035" by a vote of 7-1. District 3 council member Eric Olson voted against the measure, and District 8 council member Obie Patterson was not present for the vote.

With that vote, the council once again sided with the well-financed developers who have fought hard to maintain the build-anywhere-you-want culture that has left Prince George's County with the least-developed and least-profitable Metro station areas in the region.

Future master plans and a better council could help undo the damage

In the end, Plan Prince George’s 2035 embodies the very same business-as-usual, undisciplined, sprawl-centered approach to future growth and development that planners cautioned the county against. While the plan says many of the right things about how and why the county should focus on developing its transit stations and reinvigorating its older communities, it ultimately allows and encourages uncontrolled sprawl growth away from transit centers and outside of the Beltway. As such, it does not provide much of an improvement over the 2002 general plan that it replaces.

Fortunately, the county does not have to wait another decade to right this wrong. Any future master plan or small-area sector plan can amend the general plan as it relates to that specific planning area. But to realize that opportunity, the county needs council members who are serious about focusing on smart growth.

Citizens need to realize what’s at stake during local elections, like the one we’re having on June 24, and choose forward-thinking leaders who can do more than just talk the talk when it comes to TOD.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Prince George’s Lawmakers Urged to Fix General Plan

Photo by MDGovpics on Flickr
(Updated March 29, 2014)

County planners have been working over the past year to revamp Prince George’s countywide comprehensive plan for future growth, known as Plan Prince George’s 2035 (“Plan 2035”). Since they released the preliminary plan draft last September, planners have received an earful—and a filing cabinet full—of public comments from concerned county citizens, who believe the plan is too encumbered by sprawl and gives scant attention to long-ignored, yet transit-rich, inner-Beltway communities. Now that the plan is before the County Council for review, calls to remedy several identified flaws in the plan are growing even louder.

Calls Increase to Fix Plan 2035 (#FixPlan2035)

Over the past several weeks, over 100 county residents have signed a petition urging county leaders to revise the plan to focus more on smart growth, transit-oriented development, and neighborhood revitalization inside the Beltway, and to turn away from the county’s traditional path of embracing massive suburban sprawl development far away from transit.

A number of state and local public officials have lent their support to the petition effort, including State Senator Joanne C. Benson, Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene W. Grant, Capitol Heights Mayor Kito James, and Forest Heights Mayor Jacqueline Goodall. They were joined by several county civic leaders, including Douglas Edwards and Arthur Turner of the Coalition of Central Prince George’s County Civic Associations; William Cavitt of the Indian Head Highway Area Action Council; and Mike Hethmon of the Friends of Croom. Additionally, citizens from all nine of the county’s council districts have thrown their support behind the petition.

Despite the broad range of public support for reforms, the county Planning Board turned a blind eye toward the petition, failing to acknowledge its existence and not entertaining any discussion on its merits. On March 6, the board adopted and forwarded a revised version of Plan 2035 to the County Council for consideration and possible further amendment.

On March 20, as a follow-up to the petition effort, petition organizer Bradley Heard, a Capitol Heights lawyer and smart growth advocate, filed a 15-page set of proposed amendments with the County Council, urging lawmakers to revise the plan in line with the petitioners’ requests. Broadly speaking, the proposed amendments seek to do the following:
  • Revise the county’s growth policy map so that it syncs more closely with guidance provided by the Maryland Department of Planning and incorporates the targeted growth and revitalization areas previously recognized by the county and state as Sustainable Communities, Enterprise Zones, and Targeted Areas;
  • Develop a “Strategic Investment Policy” that details how the county will prioritize its infrastructure investments to catalyze development around regional and local transit centers (including assigning a high priority to Prince George’s Plaza Metro, New Carrollton Metro, and Largo Town Center Metro, where the county wants to establish “Downtowns”);
  • Simplify and clarify the descriptions of the different types of transit centers existing in the county (e.g., “Regional,” “Local,” and “Neighborhood”) and provide growth and density targets for each; and
  • Encourage mix-used transit-oriented development at all Metro, MARC, and future light rail stations, not just the 8 stations identified as “Regional” centers, and ensure that all stations are planned and zoned for densities that are supportive of rail transit.

The council will be reviewing Plan 2035 with county planners during informal, unrecorded "work sessions" that occur during the middle of the business day. While these sessions are technically open to the public, few citizens are actually aware of or able to attend and participate in these sessions. Petition organizers have urged the council to hold evening and weekend sessions to allow for greater public participation.

Under the current schedule, the council must either act to reject or accept the plan (with or without amendments) by May 6.

How would the proposed amendments improve Plan 2035?

Here’s a quick example of how the proposed amendments would address some of the more schizophrenic and unhelpful elements of the adopted version of Plan 2035. The plan's revised Land Use section has a subheading that states, “Too Many Centers Undermine Economic Growth.” Planners base that claim on the current low projections for future transit-oriented growth that the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) has predicted for Prince George’s County, based on the county's current non-transit-oriented growth trajectory. Plan 2035 acknowledges that there is “robust regional demand for transit-accessible development”; but since MWCOG thinks so little of it will come to the county, the plan concludes that we should only plan to build out 7 of our “regional” Metro stations (Greenbelt, College Park, PG Plaza, New Carrollton, Largo, Branch Ave, and Suitland), plus National Harbor.

The other 8 Metro stations…and the 6 other MARC stations…and the 6 other future Purple Line stations…and the 4 other future Southern Maryland Transit Corridor light rail stations that aren’t part of the “regional” category are relegated to the status of “local” centers and lumped in with massive non-transit-oriented future greenfield suburban sprawl projects like Westphalia and Konterra. Housing densities at the “local” Metro, MARC, and light rail stations are capped at levels that are not conducive to support rail transit (i.e., below 30 dwelling units per acre), and employers are discouraged from locating there. Meanwhile, housing densities at the greenfield sprawl sites are allowed to reach up to 40 dwelling units per acre, and those sites are projected to have hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space.

Our proposed amendments take a different approach. We view all of our transit stations as valuable assets, not as albatrosses that “undermine economic growth.” Therefore, the amendments increase the density targets at these stations to levels that are supportive of transit and encourage appropriately scaled mixed-use development (including jobs) to come to all transit stations. They also provide that a reasonable portion of the county's annual capital improvement expenditures will directed to these stations. While all these non-“regional” stations may not develop instantaneously, there’s no need to stifle development in those locations by capping density and not investing in them.

More importantly, given that our existing and planned transit stations and our other inner-Beltway growth areas and existing suburban sites like Bowie will provide virtually unlimited growth capacity for the county for the foreseeable future, the proposed amendments eliminate the sprawl category of “Town Centers” and do not promote additional greenfield development sites away from transit.

If these are the types of changes you support, please sign the petition and also separately call or email your council member to support the proposed amendments.

NOTE: If the above PDF Portfolio link to the proposed amendments will not open with your version of Adobe Reader, try these separate links to the cover letter and the attachment containing the proposed amendments.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Residents, City Leaders Urge Prince George's County to Reconsider Land Use Priorities

Image by M-NCPPC
(Updated March 4, 2014)

More than 100 Prince George’s County residents and municipal officials have signed onto a petition urging County Council members and planning commissioners to revise the current draft of the county’s General Plan. They are advocating for increased focus on developing neighborhood transit station areas and revitalizing existing older communities inside the Beltway, rather than on pursing new suburban sprawl projects.

The General Plan is the county’s long-range comprehensive roadmap that guides future growth and development. Maryland law requires counties to update their general plans at least once a decade, following the census. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) published the preliminary draft of “Plan Prince George’s 2035” last fall and held an initial joint public hearing with the County Council in November. Planners have spent the past several weeks reviewing and responding to oral and written public comments received through mid-December.

The preliminary plan draft recommends that 50% of the county’s future growth over the next 20 years should go to eight “Regional Transit Centers,” including National Harbor (which currently lacks a rapid transit connection) and seven of the county’s 15 Metrorail stations. But the plan also recommends that 30-40% of the county’s future growth should go to greenfield suburban developments outside of the Beltway and away from transit, such as the planned Westphalia Town Center near Upper Marlboro. Only 15% of future growth is recommended to go to the county’s remaining 20 Metro, MARC, and future Purple Line stations.

Many citizens and public officials have expressed concern that the preliminary plan unwisely prioritizes outer-Beltway sprawl over transit-oriented development (TOD) and revitalization. Lillie Thompson-Martin, mayor of the town of Fairmount Heights, charged that the plan was “starving the older established communities” by refusing them any meaningful revitalization assistance. She urged the county to designate her town and the surrounding unincorporated communities as “Neighborhood Revitalization Areas.”

Eugene W. Grant, mayor of the nearby city of Seat Pleasant, agrees. His petition comments urged the county to reevaluate how the plan treats Metrorail-accessible communities like his, saying they had been “overlooked” for “far too long” and that they have "tremendous potential." Grant further noted that refocusing on transit-oriented development around Metro stations would “stabilize our economy, create jobs, offer opportunities for local entrepreneurship … and so much more.”

Striking a similar tone, Capitol Heights mayor Kito James stated that inner-Beltway communities are the “future economic engine for Prince George's County,” and that reinvesting in the county's transit-rich core would elevate the county to “a new level of prosperity.” James noted that Montgomery County and Northern Virginia often outpace Prince George's because they have pursued an economic and land development strategy centered on "focused inner core reinvestment." 

Rev. Douglas Edwards, president of the Coalition of Central Prince George's County Community organizations, echoed the mayors' sentiments in his petition comments. "The inner-Beltway has been ignored far too long," Edwards said, citing specifically to the county's failure to develop the Addison Road and Morgan Boulevard Metro stations on the Blue Line. Those stations and the Capitol Heights station all have a number of redevelopment opportunity areas, including vacant parcels, within easy walking distance.

Even suburban county residents support a refocusing of the plan’s development priorities inside the Beltway, close to transit. Clinton resident Mary Forsht-Tucker lamented that creating additional automobile-oriented suburban town centers, as contemplated by the preliminary plan, would further clog already-overcrowded roads and make the quality of life “unbearable” for existing residents. “Doing away with the goal of having large developments built near mass transit makes a mockery of the decades of planning that preceded this Plan 2035,” she said.

Michael Hethmon, spokesperson for the Friends of Croom in southern Prince George’s County, argued that “rural tier preservation cannot occur without inside-[Beltway] TOD as the top goal of county planning.” Another civic leader, Indian Head Highway Area Action Council president William Cavitt, remarked that suburban sprawl was "self-defeating" and put the county in a "deeper financial hole."

The petition was created by Capitol Heights resident Bradley Heard, an attorney and civic activist who runs the smart growth-oriented blog Prince George’s Urbanist. It urges county leaders to revise the General Plan to direct 25-30% of future growth to local transit, neighborhood, or campus centers; to limit outer-Beltway suburban development to 10-15% of future growth; and to designate all areas designated as a Maryland Sustainable Community, Targeted Area, or Enterprise Zone as “Neighborhood Revitalization Areas.”

The preliminary draft of Plan Prince George’s 2035 is not yet final. M-NCPPC will consider the public comments received thus far and may make additional revisions to the preliminary plan before formally adopting it and sending it on to the County Council for further hearings. The County Council, which sits as the “District Council” when it considers land use matters, may make further revisions before approving the final General Plan sometime later this spring or summer.

To view the petition, click here. For more information on the preliminary plan draft, click here.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Outer-Beltway focus threatens Prince George’s new General Plan

Image by M-NCPPC
Last year, Prince George's County planners kicked off a bold effort to revise the countywide comprehensive plan and direct future growth primarily to transit stations inside the Beltway. But a continuing focus on sprawling suburban developments on the county's fringes could thwart those worthy goals.

The Planning Department has been working on "Plan Prince George's 2035," an update of the General Plan that sets out the county's blueprint for long-term growth and development. It proposes directing most growth to a few "downtown" areas at major Metro stations inside the Beltway. Planners also stressed the need to revitalize older established communities and preserve natural resources.

Throughout the process, planners urged the county to be "bold and forward thinking" and to reject the "business as usual" approach of supporting sprawl development, which would only continue the county’s historical role as a bedroom community with limited retail options and few jobs. But the County Executive's and County Council's continuing enthusiasm for big greenfield developments like Westphalia and Konterra, will only continue this pattern by directing growth away from downtowns.

Preliminary draft plan reflects council’s desire for more “business as usual”

The preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035, released in September, is graphically impressive and chock-full of data. Planners have spent the past several weeks reviewing, digesting, and responding to public comments received in November and December.

In many ways, the preliminary draft plan lays out the right overall vision and framework for how the county should "live, work, and sustain" over the next 20 years. For example, it says that 50% of the county's growth should go to one of eight "Regional Transit Centers": Largo Town Center, New Carrollton, Prince George's Plaza, Branch Avenue, College Park, Greenbelt, Suitland, and National Harbor. Of these, only National Harbor is not Metro-accessible, and all of these areas are either inside or adjacent to the Beltway.

In many other ways, however, Plan Prince George's 2035 is at odds with the planners' stated vision. It's too permissive of allowing growth to continue in the sprawling areas of the county that lie outside the Beltway and away from transit. Inside the Beltway, the preliminary plan misses the mark in identifying existing neighborhoods most in need of capital investments to catalyze revitalization and redevelopment.

Image by Magnus D on Flickr

New “Suburban Centers” and sprawling subdivisions away from transit encourage growth in the wrong places

The plan identifies five “Suburban Centers,” all located outside the Beltway and away from transit: Bowie, Brandywine, Landover Gateway, Westphalia and Konterra. Planners envision that these centers will be "larger in size" than development around Metro stations and will "rely more on vehicular transportation."

According to the plan, 6,300 new homes should be built in these areas, representing 10% of the county's growth over the next 20 years. But Konterra and Westphalia alone are already approved for 9,500 homes, or 15% of the county's projected growth. Add the approved and planned development at Woodmore Towne Centre and the old Landover Mall (both at Landover Gateway), as well as Bowie and Brandwine, and Suburban Centers could easily be responsible for more than 20% of Prince George's projected future growth.

County planners may have felt they had to include these “Suburban Centers” because they're already reflected in existing master plans. Additionally, County Executive Rushern Baker and many County Council members continue to vigorously support growth and development in these areas. But the point of the General Plan is to provide a blueprint for the county's future growth, not to ratify the bad growth decisions of the past.

The preliminary plan also recommends directing another 20% of the county's growth to so-called "Established Communities," which refers to every place in the county that's eligible for public water and sewer connections. But such an overarching designation, which includes many areas that are currently undeveloped, turns the whole concept of “established” on its head and does virtually nothing to control sprawl.

Last fall, the County Council extended the validity periods for several previously approved but still-unbuilt projects dating to before the housing bust. Eighty percent of those projects are for single-family subdivisions in undeveloped areas outside the Beltway.

With the "Suburban Centers" and "Established Communities," as contemplated in the preliminary plan, over 40% of the county's projected growth will occur in outer-Beltway suburbia, away from transit. This can hardly be the "bold" direction that planners originally envisioned.

Plan doesn’t direct enough resources for inside-the-Beltway communities

In contrast to the massive growth planned for "Suburban Centers" and "Established Communities," the draft plan only anticipates 15% of the county's growth going to the 20 Metro, MARC, Purple Line, and other transit stations inside the Beltway that are designated as local transit, neighborhood, or campus centers. There's little mention in the plan of public funds for capital improvements, like new streets or public facilities, and other catalytic investment in these areas, meaning even that tiny amount of growth is not likely to materialize.

Additionally, the draft plan focuses its "Neighborhood Reinvestment Area" priorities solely on the six neighborhoods that County Executive Baker designated in his 2012 Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative (TNI) program, which provides educational, public health, and public safety resources to communities particularly plagued by crime.

In her public testimony, Lillie Thompson-Martin, mayor of the town of Fairmount Heights, rightly criticized the preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035 for "starving the older established communities," refusing them any meaningful revitalization assistance.

State-designated revitalization opportunity areas like this, across from the Addison Road Metro Station, get little attention in Plan Prince George’s 2035. Image from Google Earth.

A better approach would have the plan focus on those areas that county and state economic development officials have already identified as most in need of revitalization. Maryland has designated several Prince George's communities as either a Sustainable Community, Targeted Area, or Enterprise Zone. This would encompass most of the inner-Beltway Metro station areas designated as Local Transit Centers or Neighborhood Centers, like West Hyattsville and Addison Road, and many other older communities, like Brentwood, Mount Rainier, and Capitol Heights.

Tell Prince George’s it’s time to change directions

Although the public comment period has passed, the final draft of Plan Prince George's 2035 has not yet been adopted. The Planning Board and the County Council still have to meet and vote to adopt the final plan.

If you believe that Prince George's needs to make developing our Metro stations and revitalizing inside-the-Beltway communities a priority, please sign this online petition via You can also write separately to the Planning Board and County Council and urge them to hold another public hearing. For the Planning Board, send your emails to the Public Affairs Department, with copies to Planning Director Fern Piret and Deputy Planning Director Al Dobbins.

For the County Council, send your emails to Council Chair Mel Franklin, with copies to the Clerk of the Council and Ingrid Turner, chair of the council's Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development committee.

(This article is cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington.)

Friday, February 14, 2014

New Law Obliterates Use Restrictions in Prince George’s Overlay Zones

Council Chair Mel Franklin
The Prince George’s County Council snuck through a major zoning amendment late last year that will essentially nullify otherwise applicable use restrictions in transit and development district overlay zones. This move, which may well violate state law, will allow developers almost free reign to build anything they want on their properties, with only the barest of notice to the public.

The bill, CB-101-2013, was sponsored by District 9 Councilmember Mel Franklin, former chair of the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee and current Council chair. Council members Derrick Leon Davis (District 6), Karen Toles (District 7), and Ingrid Turner (District 4) co-sponsored the bill.

Franklin hurriedly pushed his bill through council: Repeating a trick that he unsuccessfully tried at the end of the 2012 session, Franklin fast-tracked this bill so it could avoid the ordinary scrutiny that other zoning bills receive. He “introduced” CB-101-2013 on October 22, one week after the last day for introducing regular zoning bills. “Introduction” is normally the second step of a three-step legislative process. By skipping the first step of “presenting” the bill, Franklin was able to bypass the usual referral to and hearing before the PZED Committee that he chaired at that time. Then, after a faster-than-usual public notice period, the full council voted on the motion on November 19.

No one—including the sponsors—spoke for or against the bill during the November 19 meeting and “public hearing” that preceded the vote. According to the video footage from the meeting, District 3 councilmember Eric Olson seemed genuinely confused as to what bill he was even voting on. He tried to get some clarity from his fellow council members, but wasn’t successful. Council Vice-Chair Obie Patterson (District 8) literally chuckled as he asked the Council Clerk whether there were any persons signed up to speak on the bill. The bill passed unanimously on a 7-0 vote, with Council chair Andrea Harrison (District 5) and Councilmember Mary Lehman (District 1) not present.

What the law does: CB-101-2013 changes the way that use restrictions operate in Transit District Overlay Zones (TDOZs) and Development District Overlay Zones (DDOZs). It allows planners to include uses that are otherwise prohibited in an underlying zone in the applicable Transit District Development Plan or in the applicable Development District Standards. If the planners do not include the additional uses at the time the plan is adopted, the property owner can apply to have them included as part of the detailed site plan application for his or her individual property.

Thus, for example, an automobile repair shop, pawnshop, check cashing establishment, liquor store, or fast food restaurant that otherwise would not be allowed in a residentially-zoned area might be permissible if that residential area is in a TDOZ or a DDOZ.

Why the law is probably illegal: CB-101-2013 appears to play fast and loose with Maryland law in at least two ways. First, state law recognizes a distinction between planning and zoning. Planning is what happens when Transit District Development Plans or Development District Standards are developed. In Prince George’s County, planning functions are carried out through the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) and then approved by a resolution of the District Council (a.k.a. County Council).

Zoning, on the other hand, is the responsibility of the District Council and is accomplished through passing of legislation after public notice and hearings. The use restrictions applicable to particular zones are provided in the Zoning Ordinance, which cannot be amended by a planning document. This law allows new uses to be added to a zone simply by including those new uses in a planning document.

Second, Maryland law generally forbids the practice of “spot zoning,” whereby the rules for particular pieces of property are changed primarily for the benefit of the property’s owner. Spot zoning differs from other types of permissible targeted zoning, where a particular piece of property is rezoned to accomplish particular purposes in a comprehensive plan (e.g., allowing a mixed-use building in a single-family residential area to accommodate a corner store, restaurant, or other neighborhood amenity).

Third, this zoning bill was never presented to the County Executive for his approval or veto, in accordance with Section 704 of the County Charter. Like any other county legislation, zoning bills must be approved by the County Executive, and they are subject to being vetoed, or being petitioned for a public referendum. The District Council has, for decades, routinely violated these provisions of the County Charter whenever it passes zoning legislation.

Why the law is bad politics: Even if CB-101-2013 is completely legal, it still reflects horrible politics. Why was the law necessary? Why would the Council rush this law though under cover of darkness, at the last minute? Why would the sponsors not even speak up for this bill at the hearing? What controls are in place to ensure that developer and public official corruption, which has historically been so rampant in this county, doesn’t overtake this process?

Chairman Franklin and the other sponsors of CB-101-2013 should answer these questions, since they sat silent at last year’s hearing. And Prince George’s citizens should take note of the way their elected leaders handle the public’s business.