Greater Greater Washington

"Dernoga money" stymied College Park growth

The Washington Post revealed Thursday that former Prince George's Councilmember Thomas Dernoga privately solicited contributions totaling about $1 million from developers for charity during his 8 years in office.


Photo by Jameson42 on Flickr.

Such funds, which would normally be part of a formal developer or community benefits agreement, were instead extorted behind the scenes in a highly unethical (and perhaps illegal) donate-to-play arrangement designed to benefit Dernoga politically.

Community members, especially in his Laurel political base, were accustomed to seeing him present "Dernoga Money" at various back-to-school nights during his tenure in Upper Marlboro. Dernoga jokingly refers to himself as Robin Hood, according to the Post story. Unfortunately for him, moralistic pronouncements will mean little in the federal probe investigating the county, which many speculate he is caught up in.

"Most of the people want a favor. They want more density. They want more parking. They all want something. They seem to think they are entitled. You say you want the county to do you a favor that might be good for the county, but it is also going to make you a lot of money. But are you willing to support local needs?" ...

"You have these people making millions, and all this density and all the traffic [we'd] absorb on Route 1. You mean to tell me you have nothing to help out our schools?" Dernoga said. "I found it greedy on the part of the property owners."

Dernoga said that project would have cost the main developers $120 million and that $100,000 would have been a "drop in the bucket," he said.

Dernoga's shenanigans during the development review process have been a frequent problem for College Park, on issues like the Mazza GrandMarc impact fee waiver controversy and Route 1 form-based code debates. His total disregard of process, a surprising approach for a trained lawyer who ran for the county's top law enforcement post in 2008, stymied many a development project on Route 1 in northern College Park.

Perhaps most notable of these projects are two failed luxury condominiums just north of MD-193 to the east and west of Route 1. Joe Lasick, owner of one of the properties which was slated for a 200 unit mixed-use development, claims Dernoga held up his project for a $200,000 donation to local schools.

After multiple delays incited by Dernoga before the November 2007 donation request, Lasick refused and Dernoga decided to "revisit" the tax incentive on which the project proposal was based. Today, two downtrodden vacant lots on opposing sides of Route 1 in College Park, each a block long, face drivers as they pass through the derelict retail corridor.

College Park residents are paying the price for Dernoga's actions. The delays he introduced for developers, including for those who didn't make donations, meant that many parcels of land on Route 1 never got developed during the real estate boom, and we're stuck with strip malls, parking lots or vacant land instead of useful properties that house residents or shops and contribute to the city's tax base.

Fortunately, ethics legislation, which was signed into law April 12, bans Prince George's council members from asking anyone who is seeking development approvals to provide anything of monetary value. Hopefully that legislation will avoid a another Robin Hood in Upper Marlboro. Robbing from the future to fuel political ambitions is ultimately a losing proposition for Prince George's County.

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David Daddio is a master's student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Originally from Columbia, Maryland, David founded Rethink College Park while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. He is currently the Second-Year Editor of Carolina Planning, the oldest student-run planning publication in the country. 

Comments

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is this connected to the federal investigation that started with Jack Johnson?

by Tina on Apr 25, 2011 12:48 pm • linkreport

It bothers me that Dernoga dismisses the development as Route 1 "absorbing traffic" instead of becoming an important commercial corridor in Prince George's County. I get it, traffic is a concern, but that is a short-sighted explanation for throwing up road-blocks to development. I've come to expect little more from Upper Marlboro, though.

by Dave Murphy on Apr 25, 2011 1:28 pm • linkreport

The point really, as I have written in DC for many years, is not to be against proffers, but to have a systematic process for dealing with them, and to not have them be ad hoc, or the result of developer-politico dealing.

I say the process should start with a community developing a consensus list of priorities. Then when opportunities for proffers arise, they can be directed to the evident priorities.

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2009/04/community-benefits-agreements.html

Move the discourse forward, don't just run around in circles.

With what's happening in PG County over "ethics" now, this issue could be raised in a substantive manner, with a way forward offerred.

by Richard Layman on Apr 25, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

Community benefit agreements are specifically mentioned in the post...

by David on Apr 25, 2011 2:19 pm • linkreport

@Dave Murphy, that was my reaction too. Very frustrating and really baffling to me that someone who is educated (law degree) and apparently interested in civic development could be so myopic, uninterested and uninformed about the built environment, especially how he uses "extra density" like a dirty word.

by Tina on Apr 25, 2011 4:05 pm • linkreport

Well, with all the darn driveways along either side of Route 1 from College Park to Laurel, almost any traffic has been a problem. Drivers can make turns onto and off Route 1 without much warning. This can easily cause back-ups by forcing trailing vehicles to brake more forcefully and frequently than if those turns were at intersections and designated turn lanes.

And, of course, there's a noticeable lack of decent sidewalks for good stretches of the road. Even a few people walking from one block to another -- rather than driving it -- can make a difference.

Finally, there's the darn 3 consecutive intersections in Beltsville within a 500-foot stretch. If that doesn't cause traffic buildup, I don't know what does. If possible, one of those intersections needs to be eliminated.

So, if Dernoga wants to talk traffic, he first needs to recognize that the main issue is Route 1 itself, not developing on it.

by DAK4Blizzard on Apr 25, 2011 9:42 pm • linkreport

@DAK4Blizzard:

I will tell what causes traffic backups, drivers that don't use their left fast enough when it's time to go.

Nothing irritates more then some fool sitting at a green light with his thumb up his butt or a cellphone in his face.

by Sand Box John on Apr 26, 2011 12:05 am • linkreport

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