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PG planners propose bold new smart growth future

Prince George's County has diverged from its smart growth goals, says the county Planning Board in a searing assessment. The board says residents have a choice: push for more transit-oriented development and walkable communities, or "be resigned to business as usual."


Largo Town Center. Photo by the author.

The board released a policy paper called How and Where We Grow as part of an update of the county's 20-year plan for growth and development. It offers aggressive proposals to tame sprawling, scattered development and focus public resources at Metro stations and priority urban centers.

While official plans and rhetoric say transit-oriented development is important, land use trends show a different story on the ground. The county must recommit to managing its growth in a sustainable way by preserving open space and focusing development around Metro stations, says the board. Otherwise, the county will remain a place known for bedroom communities, underutilized Metro stations, and weak job growth.

Members of the public can offer their input on the county's future at a day-long town meeting next month.

Prince George's is at a crossroads

"Prince George's County is at a crossroads," the Planning Board states. "Will we choose bold action or business as usual?"

The document recounts how the 2002 General Plan vision for growth and land use fell short of its original goals over the years. Without commitment to a new direction, the county can expect more spread out development, continued failure to capitalize on the promise of transit-oriented development, and lagging investment to spark revitalization of communities inside the Beltway.


Tier boundaries from the Prince George's County General Plan.

Between 2002 and 2010, residential growth in the county departed from the General Plan by spreading out into over 6,400 acres of the "Developing Tier," a rapidly suburbanizing area outside the Beltway. The lion's share of the county's development occurred there, including 73% of residential and 60% of commercial growth.

In the "Developed Tier," inside the Beltway, growth lagged. It fell short of goals by capturing 25% rather the hoped-for 33% goal. However, what was built there consumed just 5% of the county's land area.

Development in the pipeline, which has been approved but not yet built, promises more of the same. More than 79% of residential units in the development pipeline are single-family detached houses in the Developing Tier. Yet according to the Planning Board, demand forecasts show that more than 60% of the new housing units to be built should be multifamily units located in walkable communities at transit-accessible locations.


All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

How and Where We Grow points to the costs of these growth patterns: spread-out development at densities that are difficult to support with quality transit or retail services, long commutes, and a future as a bedroom community to the region. Over the past 40 years, a third of the county's open space, agricultural, and forested land were converted to low-density residential development. The loss of open space has fragmented natural areas and undermined the agricultural economy.

Furthermore, the board notes that the county has attracted the fewest number of new residents of an area jurisdiction from 2000 to 2010. "Without recalibration of county priorities and policies that promote TOD [transit-oriented development] and high-quality, mixed-use development," the paper says, "it is likely that the county will be at a continued disadvantage to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide."

The county needs a unified vision

The board notes that the structure of county government undermines unity and fosters internal competition through the lack of at-large council members on the county council. "While the County Executive can focus and coordinate resources, the nine different Council members, oftentimes with nine different priorities, it is difficult to agree upon a single vision for the county," says the paper. "In practice this means that public dollars get spread across the county, instead of being concentrated in a few places to make a truly significant impact."

A "clear mismatch in stated goals and actual infrastructure investment" emerges when assessing the county's transportation spending priorities, the board finds. There's also far more commercial and mixed-use zoning than the market can support. The paper notes that the county's weak commercial tax base makes it a challenge to compete for employers or have the financial resources to address community needs, like crime and poor schools.

Given these tough observations, the planners put forth a realistic agenda for the future with this set of specific recommendations aimed at leveraging existing infrastructure:

  • Define density targets and growth goals for the tiers to shift the focus of development to the centers and the Developed Tier.
  • Make a stronger commitment by targeting new growth to the Developed Tier and increase the growth objectives for the tier.
  • Locate the new hospital center and key government functions at a transit-oriented development location.
  • Reduce the backlog pipeline development (which can linger for decades). Prioritize and phase development by requiring bonding for infrastructure improvements. Also use the water and sewer process to more aggressively discourage greenfield development.
  • Prioritize and fast track building permits in targeted areas (County Council is currently advancing a bill to do this).
  • Revise surcharge fees for schools and public safety, encourage development in the Centers and Developed Tier by reducing fees, and phase growth in the Developing Tier through fee increases.
  • Adopt new zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations. Ensure they are supportive of the General Plan goals, including encouraging transit-oriented development.

The planning board's honest, stern assessment of the county's challenges and practical list of reforms offer the chance for Prince George's County to change its ways. County leadership has shown some appetite for meaningful reforms. At the request of the county council and executive, the state delegation enabled the county to reduce fees for developments around Metro stations during the last Maryland legislative session.

The County Council is also advancing a bill to expedite development review for projects close to Metro stations. Meanwhile, the debate over where to locate the proposed Regional Medical Center has shifted away from expansive open sites to parcels around the Largo Town Center Metro station.

However, the county's spending priorities still reflect business as usual, with a focus on building costly intersections for new communities like National Harbor and Konterra instead of investments to enhance access to transit stations or improve bus service. Expensive sprawl-supporting highway projects remain high on the county's wish list for state funding, such as roads to support the 6,000-acre greenfield Westphalia development located outside the Capital Beltway and miles from the nearest Metro station.

Despite the mixed and sometimes contradictory priorities pursued by the county, the Planning Board and staff are making waves by pointing out the costs of continuing old ways that will allow the county to fall further behind.

Check out the Plan Prince George's 2035 website, and plan to attend the half day town meeting on June 15 beginning at 9:30 am at the University of Maryland College Park.

Cheryl Cort is Policy Director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. She works with community activists, non-profit groups and government agencies to promote transit-oriented development, housing choices, economic development and pedestrian safety, especially in less affluent communities. 

Comments

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All the position papers and good intentions in the world will be to no avail if Prince Georges county doesn't get its act together and control crime, litter and blight at its Metro stations.

The Blvd at Cap Center at the Largo Blue Line station is a case in point. A great concept and wonderful opportunity was lost because the criminal element from SE DC was allowed to come in and overrun the place. The Center soon got a well-deserved reputation as a dangerous place after several people died as the result of robberies and fights.
I personally know a retailer who closed his store at the Center after business fell because his customers were afraid to come to the area. and the shoplifting didn't help.
The condos and apartments built nearby were a failure, thanks to the area's reputation.

Today, hardly anyone goes to The Blvd at Cap Center. Half the stores are empty and the parking lot is a trash-strewn mess. The restaurants are nearly all gone, and the only attraction is the Magic Johnson movie complex - and many people, including myself won't go there.

by ceefer on May 22, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

I second ceefer, but go further: All the position papers and good intentions in the world will be to no avail if Prince Georges county doesn't get its act together and control crime, litter and blight, corruption and poor schools. There is a lot going for the county, but the governance and corruption is a serious problem.

Police corruption remains a problem. We hear about Jack Johnson, but what about the police cruisers whose cameras suddenly stop working whenever there is a potentially embarrasing situation. What about the PG police who beat UMD students, or killed Cheye Calvo's dogs etc? Not only are these officers and their bosses still on the job, but nothing happened to them. Who wants to live and work in a county where the police can act badly with impunity?

by SJE on May 22, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

For me at least half the problem with Blvd at Cap Center is that they spelled it "BLVD"

by Richard Bourne on May 22, 2013 11:20 am • linkreport

"I second ceefer, but go further: All the position papers and good intentions in the world will be to no avail if Prince Georges county doesn't get its act together and control crime, litter and blight, corruption and poor schools. "

Eh? DC started its upswing when crime, corruption and poor schools were still problems - and arguably its schools are still problematic, and its not all the way there on corruption either. A lot of what happens wrt crime is bootstrapping - where some renovation leads to less crime leads to more renovation and redevelopment leads to even less crime. But it gets very geographically specific.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 22, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

This excellent article sums up Prince George's real problem perfectly -- it is a question of vision: does development just mean more drive-to subdivisions on farm land and trying to lure a few huge employers near the beltway, or will the county truly embrace and facilitate mixed use and transit oriented development, especially in the underused inside-the-beltway areas like the Hyattsville Arts district? If the latter, I believe the county's economic prospects are excellent.

by Greenbelt on May 22, 2013 11:39 am • linkreport

AWC: DC got its corruption and mismanagement solved long before the boom, and never had the same corruption problems as PGC. As for schools: the revival of DC was led by childless people moving closer to work and play, and away from traffic. PGC doesnt have those pro's. PGC got the burbs but ignored the schools and other infrastructure.

by SJE on May 22, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

Why can't PG capitalize on metro access the same Bethesda, Silver Spring and Arlington seem to have? I'm not sayint they can just build a Rosslyn-Ballston overnight but it doesn't even seem that they really tried to do anything TOD that might attract more professionals. The whole thing strikes me as very odd.

by Alan B. on May 22, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

@ ceefer

How do you know the criminal element is from SE DC rather than PG County itself ? Many areas in PG County directly across from DC on Southern and Eastern Avenues are exactly the same.

I went there a few days ago and many stores seemed to be open. You mentioned that a store closed due to theft and lose of business what kind of store was it does the store fit the market segment, would it thrive their without the theft or was this simply a excuse to blame a failed business on crime.

Theft is very common in retail; owners usually account for that in the pricing of goods. I have several family members that have owned stores and you have to account for theft for insurance purposes on a store. Things are stolen every single day for all types of store in wealth and poor areas so theft is no reason to good out of business.

by kk on May 22, 2013 12:19 pm • linkreport

"AWC: DC got its corruption and mismanagement solved long before the boom, and never had the same corruption problems as PGC. As for schools: the revival of DC was led by childless people moving closer to work and play, and away from traffic. PGC doesnt have those pro's. PGC got the burbs but ignored the schools and other infrastructure. "

When do you date the boom to? DC had gentrication started in some nabes in the 1980s when things were really bad, and it was spreading in the 1990s. It just wasnt big and fast enough to overcome the declines in the less TODish areas. And lots of the TOD in Arlco, MoCo, etc, is not mostly families.

I think the north Green line areas can expand, and give PG the basis to bootstrap, even before the other issues are dealt with.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 22, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

It says residents have a choice: push for more transit-oriented development and walkable communities, or "be resigned to business as usual."

Third choice: Blame it on the "man".

by W.D. Schaefer on May 22, 2013 12:32 pm • linkreport

@ Greenbelt

One question has to be asked and it is what do the people of the county want as a whole. How many want urban vs rural, not everyone wants to live in a tiny ass apartment or condo which is the same price as a house somewhere else.

Do the people of PG County want apartments/condos, townhouses or single family houses once that is answered you build according to that and develop transit around that. There is no reason why someone could not make a subdivision with single family houses centered around transit it is done in other countries

Transit does not help when all the transit leads to the same place. Looking at Northern Virginia compared to Maryland around DC it is easier in VA to travel between counties on transit than it is in Maryland. Is it not even possible to go from PG or Montgomery County to Charles, Frederick, Howard or Anne Arundel county by transit every single day of the week.

Its impossible to go from Maryland to VA on transit without first going through DC but they could easily establish bus service on the Legion and Wilson Bridges but do not.

When it comes to work where do most PG County residents work ( all types of work be with white colar, blue colar or something inbetween)? Transit has to fit the needs of the workers, many blue colar and retail jobs work hours that the transit is not always open early mornings, or late at night or just night on weekends and these jobs are usually scattered around counties. When it comes to White Colar you must look at where the work is, and the income level I have been around people who think transit is beneath them and would never go on it.

by kk on May 22, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

I find the notion that DC's crime and corruption problems have been solved to be rather perplexing. Improved perhaps, but still awful.

by Chris S. on May 22, 2013 12:44 pm • linkreport

@AlanB: Why can't PG capitalize on metro access the same Bethesda, Silver Spring and Arlington seem to have?

Bethesda and Silver Spring border parts of the District of Columbia that have been relatively well-to-do for decades, and these communities have long been relatively desirable places to live. Wards 7 and 8 have not yet achieved that level of wealth, which makes it harder to entice wealthy people to move to the inner Metro stations along the Blue or Southern Green Line. This is slowly changing along the northern section of the Green Line, though more like Arlington in the 1980s than Arlington today.

The Orange Line stations suffer from isolation due to US-50 and the Amtrak Line, with industrial on one side of the tracks and settled neighorhoods on the other. Rather than developing organically as an extension of Washington, those areas might require a bit of a push from a very large development that sees the potential.

What one might call the "PG County mentality" has probably delayed things quite a bit. There is a deep-seated suspicion of developers--for good reason. Civic associations are happy to see a development stalled for decades. Citizens have generally not been sold on smart growth, which limits the ability of enlightened officials to pursue it.

by JimT on May 22, 2013 12:55 pm • linkreport

Why can't PG capitalize on metro access the same Bethesda, Silver Spring and Arlington seem to have?

A big problem is that PGC's stations are poorly cited. For example, the Landover station is in a floodplain that severely limits development opportunities. Furthermore, the orange line in PGC is bordered on one side by Rt. 50, which is not easily traversed by foot, eliminating about half of the potential TOD zone.

That said there are solid opportunities in places like New Carrollton but so far, it's been all talk and position papers and no actual development.

by Falls Church on May 22, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

Do the people of PG County want apartments/condos, townhouses or single family houses once that is answered you build according to that and develop transit around that.

The vast majority of people in PGC likely want to stay in their homes and not move to a different home within the county. You build new construction for new residents, not existing residents. Market research indicates that new households and existing households that are moving, increasingly are seeking apartments/condos/townhouses resulting in a shortage of that type of housing and less demand for detached houses. So, you should build the type of housing that's in short supply.

by Falls Church on May 22, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport

The problem with inside-the-Beltway development in PGC is that many areas are undesirable to developers regardless of smart growth planning. How many developers do you know that would rush to build they're huge "luxury" condo/apartments in Suitland or Capitol Heights? The only areas inside the Beltway seeing significant development right now is Northern PGC (College Park, Hyattsville, Riverdale, etc.) Most developers in the county stick to outside the Beltway in places like Upper Marlboro and Bowie because:

a) land is readily available and cheap
b) crime is lower and schools are better
c) there is a healthy population of prospective buyers who want sfhs/McMansions that they otherwise couldn't afford in MoCo/Ffx

In order to curb sprawl, Prince George's needs to put boundaries on development similar to Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve. Not because agriculture is so economically important (since it isn't), but for reasons of sustainability and the preservation of open space.

This will force developers to refocus development inside the Beltway, hopefully around transit stations, and renew blighted areas. Also, they should definitely plan light rail/BRT to National Harbor. This will increase its potential by a factor 10.

by King Terrapin on May 22, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

"How do you know the criminal element is from SE DC rather than PG County itself ?"
----

Maybe it's the DC license plates?

by ceefer on May 22, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

I completely agree with Falls Church on this one. Look at Arlington. They've basically concentrated 80-90% of growth over the last 30/40 years clustered around a half dozen metro stations and a few other areas which now provide amenities for surrounding communities. I don't see any reason why existing residents of PG would have to move if they dont want to.

by Alan B. on May 22, 2013 1:35 pm • linkreport

"Why can't PG capitalize on metro access the same Bethesda, Silver Spring and Arlington seem to have?"

PG has more metro stations than any jurisdiction other than DC. The money(PG is poorer than any jurisdiction other than DC too) gets spread thinly over the 14 metro stations in the county. Moco has nearly half as many stations and a ton more money to develop them. Arlington has almost as many stations, but they are all 20 min closer to downtown DC than the PG stations.

by Richard Bourne on May 22, 2013 2:04 pm • linkreport

Everyone can agree that the northern green line is doing pretty well. Hyattsville is ripe for development, PG plaza's redevelopment has been successful with a lot more room to go. College Park is becoming more than a campus oasis and greenbelt should eventually(soon) turn around it's decline. The purple line is going to help this area more than any other.

The problem is PG county is HUGE. It is a huge area and has a huge population. On the scale of FF and MoCo, it has an enormous amount of inertia. It will take time and a lot of promising projects to get it anywhere near it's peers.

In an ideal world, PG county would be split into two counties(north and south). The north would be able to use it's growing tax base to improve schools and attract a higher class of tennant. The south could focus it's attention on the lower income market. Property values in the north would rise, while those in the south would lower(obviously no land owner in the south would want this, the first of many reasons this will never happen). With lowering land values in the south, low income families would more easily be able to afford housing and the price of goods and services would go down.

by Richard Bourne on May 22, 2013 2:12 pm • linkreport

Unless I'm missing something Montgomery County has 12 metro stations. I'm not blaming PG for all of its problems, but its roughly the same size as Montgomery and Fairfax (area and population) and it seems like the differences in management or resources are significant. Even in the north though it seems like they are having trouble capitalizing on assets. What's the deal with West Hyattsville? Why is that not a town center yet (for example)? It does give the impression that they are firmly rooted in a suburban mentality and not very interested in change.

by Alan B. on May 22, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

Everyone seems to focus on planning or government officials as the reason PGC is still in the position it's in. If you picked up and looked at the plans done over the past decade, just about every Metro corridor, and then every Metro station, has a redevelopment plan for denser urban growth. Nothing can happen until a private developer decides they want to start building, and no private developer is going to spend money at most of the PGC Metro stations with the current crime, poverty and overall aesthetics issues. Few people would pay the new construction/proximity to Metro premium rent and the developer would have to fold the project. Second, possibly bigger problem, is outside of a few stations, most don't have the available land to develop around. As pointed out earlier, the Orange line is a bust except for New Carrollton because of streams and freeways, and even that isn't great with a stream running south of the station and cutting into the existing office park. The Blue Line besides Largo and Maybe Morgan Blvd lacks large enough properties owned by a single owner or partnership to get any sort of 'town center' built. Many of these stations have tiny strip centers with single family detached housing right behind them. The Southern Green Line likewise has environmental issues or is in Federal Ownership except for Branch Avenue. Only the upper Green corridor has the right mix of existing uses and available land to interest developers.

by Gull on May 22, 2013 3:26 pm • linkreport

@Alan

It does have 12, I dont know how I counted 8. I know I included SS to Glenmont.

by Richard Bourne on May 22, 2013 4:59 pm • linkreport

@ ceefer

Two problems with that conclusion
1 Who says it is there car vs a friend or family member
2 How do you know everyone in that said is from DC
3 How do you know where in DC they are from unless they publicity say that they are from SE as NE DC is the same distance from Largo as SE is.

4 Unlikely but possible rental car (I have rented a car in DC that had DC tags before).

Everything you say is not built upon facts just assumptions where is the concrete evidence

by kk on May 22, 2013 6:54 pm • linkreport

@JimT: "What one might call the "PG County mentality" has probably delayed things quite a bit. There is a deep-seated suspicion of developers--for good reason. "

You get the developers you deserve. For decades it was well known in the industry that you did not get a project done in a timely fashion (or at all) in PG unless you gave the appropriate "gifts". The developers who didn't want to play that game didn't go to PG (there are several other choices with no-BS reputations less than an hour away, so it's not like PG had a captive market). But I suppose it is easier to blame sleazy developers than to take responsibility for the endemic corruption which inevitably leads to sleazy developers.

by Mike on May 23, 2013 7:01 am • linkreport

Unless I'm missing something Montgomery County has 12 metro stations. I'm not blaming PG for all of its problems, but its roughly the same size as Montgomery and Fairfax (area and population) and it seems like the differences in management or resources are significant.

Alan, a big part of this is also housing costs. New mixed-use construction isn't cheap, and housing prices in Prince George's - while not low in many parts, aren't particularly high relative to the pricing of new condos. For instance, many nice areas of northern PG like Hyattsville and College Park have historic single family homes that may run in the 200-300k range, often within reasoanble walking or biking distance of metro stations. That's not too much different than the pricing level you may need to hit for new condo stock, and it may be very difficult to convince people to people far more per square foot than to buy a SFH nearby. Same thing with rental stock - it may be a better dealto rent a SFH than go with expensive new rental stock.

Also, other commentors pointed out the poor siting of many PG metro stations - they went in the easiest places (such as planned highway right of way, or along existing railroad alignments (see northern Green Line or the eastern Orange Line), and didn't hit some of the older town cores. This meant that a lot of PG metro stations have bene relegated to park and ride status because of access issues, as compared to, say, the Red Line, which hits a lot of older urban cores in Montgomery County

by Jarrett on May 23, 2013 10:07 am • linkreport

they went in the easiest places (such as planned highway right of way, or along existing railroad alignments

The Orange Line was originally planned to go down the median of I-66, but Arlington lobbied to change it. PG County could have done the same thing, but they chose not to.

by Juanita de Talmas on May 23, 2013 12:01 pm • linkreport

@ Juanita de Talmas

The Orange Line still goes down the median of I-66 in Arlington between Ballston Station and about 1 mile before West Falls Church Station; so apparently Arlington did not do a good enough job as there are several better places for a station than East Falls Church and that there should have been two stations between Ballston and West Falls Church

by kk on May 23, 2013 6:23 pm • linkreport

^^They're still doing better than PG County.

by Benjamin Banneker on May 24, 2013 9:41 am • linkreport

Great article, Cheryl. M-NCPPC's How and Where We Grow document does a fine job of setting out the issues facing the county as it moves to update its General Plan. But the reality is that all the planning documents in the world won't do any good unless the County Executive and County Council actually start paying attention to and implemening them, instead of just adopting them and shelving them.

As you and I (and several others) have noted before, the problem is that the county's leaders have historically lacked the political will and discipline to commit to a true vision of transit-oriented development that focuses on building compact, walkable developments around Metro stations. And seemingly, the county's citizens have not yet demanded any better out of our leaders, since we keep putting the same sprawl kings and queens in power.

Rarely, if ever, have the county council and county executive met a large greenfield project that they didn't like and didn't vigorously support. Usually, these projects are nowhere near a Metro station, and they're mostly outside of the Beltway. Woodmore Towne Center, Westphalia, Konterra, and Cafritz are but a few of the recent examples. As long as this continues to happen, Prince George's will continue to lag behind its neighbors.

Because the county didn't take care to do it right from the beginning, it's going to take a herculean commitment -- both in terms of capital outlays and stern land use decisionmaking -- to redevelop the Metro station areas. This includes acquiring and assembling land, improving transportation infrastructure (e.g., street gridding, utility undergrounding, sidewalk and bike lane installation, etc.), and providing additional incentives to developers (tax abatements, TIF districts, etc.).

Do our current leaders have this kind of mettle? Will we, as citizens, demand better from our leaders? Time will tell...

by Bradley Heard on May 24, 2013 8:02 pm • linkreport

As a resident of Florida, west of Orlando, I have observed similar efforts to force people into high density "walkable" areas which are the objective of American Planner's Assoc. members who took funds from the "Sustainable Development" crowd of socialists since Clinton was in office. Why is it that the planners have any say at all in this? It appears market forces are showing where people want to live, and they don't like high density neighborhoods with trains. The problem is that "professional" planners infest local governments and believe their religion of high density should be followed by all residents. Best way is to have a referendum of the population to get public discussion. At all costs, avoid "visioning" meetings run by planners and "facilitators" who use a method called "Delphi Technique" to ignore alternatives and just write reports for pre-ordained outcomes. Search on Rosa Koire and her book on Google, or read my white papers on Agenda 21 Sustainable Development at www.tinyurl.com/HaltAgenda21 .

by vj on May 27, 2013 7:37 pm • linkreport

@vj, we had a referendum. It was called an election. Our county executive, Rushern Baker, campaigned on a platform of smart growth and transit oriented development. The planners are carrying out the AGENDA set by the county executive and county council, who also support smart growth. That's why the planners have a say.

Do you have something against democracy in Prince George's County?

by Jerik on May 27, 2013 9:19 pm • linkreport

Market forces have spoken and the people want to live in suburban sprawl! These places are so desirable, that's why those Soviet shoe box apartments in the city near transit are so unbelievably cheap while the ultra-desirable suburbs are so much more expensive!

Back to reality: considering how amazingly available suburban sprawl living is, I really have to wonder why the crazies continue to push this idea that evil planners are "forcing" people to live in high-density areas. You can go out right now and buy suburban housing for cheap in many major metro areas, and there is tons of greenfield space out there. So why do they care if planning makes a few areas more high-density? It doesn't make sense.

by MLD on May 28, 2013 8:28 am • linkreport

I guess we had to figure someone would show up to mention his treatise on Agenda 21 eventually. But yeah, as MLD said, back to reality...

by Gray on May 28, 2013 8:54 am • linkreport

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