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.


  1. And who might those forward thinking leaders be? I spent a long time reading and writing comments on the draft plan, and am again disappointed at the results. Thank you for your blog, Mr. Heard. Sorry you were not "heard."

  2. One of the Forward Thinking Leaders is Kito James who is currently running for District 7 County Council.

  3. Won't happen until there are demographic changes within Beltway that cause Developers to consider TOD in the county. This is especially true for District 7. It has the highest concentration of public assistance, low-income, less educated and homeless residents in the county. The very fact that the inner Beltway has a majority African-American presence is a huge red flag for TOD. I'm sure there are those that will say it has more to do with political will, however, the will is going to follow that of developers. Westphalia is outside the Beltway, is open-land, does not have heavily concentrated pockets of apartments with low income residents. It's also easier to build from the ground up, rather than going through rigors of infill, demolition and displacement. This is what will need to occur in many Metro Stations within the Beltway. And it will be very expensive and racially charged. When one compares Ballston-Rosslyn Corridor, Silver Line and SIlver Spring for that matter, do any of them have similar characteristics to our Metro's? One exception may be Capital Riverfront along the Green Line. Communities had to be changed significantly in order to have successful TOD. I know that because I work there. This is an issue that doesn't need to be sugar-coated. Heck, no one is really addressing it for that matter. At least, that's what I observe.

    1. I disagree, Leonard. Government often plays a huge role in spurring revitalization and redevelopment in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas like the inner Beltway area of Prince George's County. Rarely does that kind of transformation happy organically, by developer interest alone. Developers sometimes need to be convinced of the opportunity that exists in a currently deteriorating or blighted area, and they have to have comfort that local officials are committed to redevelopment of urban areas and are not willing to permit competitors to build urban-scale development in far-flung suburbs. Right now, the county is not doing that -- and Plan Prince George's 2035 ultimately sends the wrong signal by signaling that "business as usual" will be the order of the day in Prince George's for the foreseeable future.

      It's always, always, always going to be cheaper to develop on a greenfield in the suburbs. Developers are usually going to prefer taking that cheaper route. But that's where political leadership and will and sound public policy come into play. Without county land use policies that say "no" to that kind of unsustainable and inefficient development...well, you end up with what we have now in Prince George's: sprawl run amok.