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.