Monday, September 28, 2015

Prince George’s Should Allow Dead Sprawl Projects to Rest in Peace

Photo by Seamoor on Flickr
Ever since 2009, the Prince George’s County Council has continually extended the approval periods for unbuilt development projects, mostly consisting of single-family residential subdivisions located outside of the Beltway and away from transit.

Now, council members are considering legislation that would give these long-dead projects yet another two-year extension, through the end of 2017. It’s time for the council to give up the ghost on these projects.

Originally, the council granted these extensions to provide temporary relief to distressed developers in the wake of the Great Recession. But the recession is over. And while housing prices continue to rebound in Prince George’s, there is no current market demand for massive new single-family subdivisions outside of the Beltway. Indeed, buyers are still able to garner great deals on many spacious suburban homes that went into foreclosure during the housing bust.

These Zombie Projects Are Clogging the County's Pipeline

As I noted in 2013, it makes no sense for the council to extend the approval windows for these types of scattered sprawl projects. County planners have already concluded that such development is unhelpful for the county because it makes it “difficult to establish a critical mass of high-density development around any existing Metro station, as envisioned by the General Plan.”

More importantly, planners note that the county’s continuing lack of focus on high-quality mixed-use transit-oriented development puts it “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.”

Despite those exhortations against sprawl development, the existing pipeline of approved-but-unbuilt projects outside of the Beltway led planners and the council to conclude in its current General Plan that the county actually has “too many” Metro stations, even before taking into account the future Purple Line light rail stations, and that developing all of them would “undermine economic growth.”

But if the council would instead just allow these old projects to die a natural death, the projected pipeline of residential development would dramatically decrease, and the county could readjust its long-term growth projections to include more transit-oriented development inside the Beltway. In particular, the county could decide to direct some much-needed attention toward its gateway neighborhoods and Metro stations near the D.C. border.

TAKE ACTION: The council’s Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee will consider the latest extension bills, CB-80-2015 and CB-81-2015, on Wednesday, September 30, at 1:30 pm in Room 2027 of the County Administration Building. You can use this link to address your comments to PZED Chair Andrea Harrison, with copies to committee director Jackie Brown and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone.


  1. It will be interesting to see if any developers of the projects set to expire show up. If any do, it undermines the basic point of this article, that these projects are dead.

    1. I imagine developers will show up and argue for the extension. They certainly have every other time. That doesn't mean their projects aren't dead; it just means they want to preserve their approvals indefinitely. The problem with that, though, is that approvals are supposed to be time-bound--e.g., 2 or 3 years in most cases. These repeated extensions basically upend that whole concept.

  2. What does it take to prove that a project is still alive? If a developer is sitting on the property, paying taxes, and showing up for meetings, that is proof enough for me.

    Maybe the problem is that they have no alternative. That is, nobody else has attempted to buy them out, and relieve them of what may be a bad investment. But if nobody is stepping to buy the property, what alternatives are there?

    I agree that at some point the approval should expire. But that does not change anything, really.

  3. My question is how does allowing developers to continue to work on these projects negatively impact the county? Does this require county time, county dollars? Other than the fact this is an ongoing issue not resolved yet, what other cost does it present to the county?

    1. Someone posed a similar question on my related GGW post. I indicated there that one of the main impediments of all these approved but un-built projects in the development pipeline is that it forces county planners to allocate the majority of projected future growth to the far-flung nether-regions of the county, where these projects are located. This is because the county assumes that approved projects will be built eventually and, therefore, they must plan for them. That means ensuring that roads, schools, and other infrastructure is built, and not down-zoning the property such that the approved development would not be possible. Also see this comment I posted on GGW.

  4. Not sure I agree with the premise that high density projects are the better option, having lived in both. Each have merits and appeal to different demographics. With technology changing how we live and do business, high density and there cycles of increased crime which drive people to the burbs , the market is the ultimate decider. As long as DC wards 7&8 border PG county the fate of pg inner belt are linked. DC has no "desire " to change these wards. If the goal is to get people out of their cars, good luck - metro ridership dropping with lower gas prices.While bringing jobs and businesses to grow the economic base should be the top goal, not sure this issue resonates...

  5. Allowing developments to expire would be helpful to the county. Like many jurisdictions, DC incorporates time limits into its Zoning Orders which (1) puts presssure on the developers to build now (2) provides a process to self select developers who are serious and efficient with development (3) allows for some other entity to take over more quickly. What those time limits are is another thing. Now that it looks like the Courts have removed the "pay to play" culture in our county now it looks like we have a chance to compete against other DMV counties for development. We will have other hurdles to get over but we are on our way.