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Prince George's doubles down on sprawl

Prince George's County has a backlog of approved, but unbuilt sprawl developments that will soon expire. Planners recommended cutting that backlog, because homebuyers increasingly prefer more compact types of housing near transit. But a council committee recommended letting the sprawl get built anyway.

Photo by FadderUri on Flickr.

80% of the approved residential development in Prince George's pipeline consists of low-density single-family homes outside of the Beltway and far from transit. Project approvals normally expire after 3 years, but lawmakers extended these validity periods several times during the housing bust. Last week, the council's Planning, Zoning and Economic Development (PZED) committee recommended moving these deadlines back for another two years.

County planners warn that this is the wrong type of development, in the wrong place, and that it puts the county "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors." They urged lawmakers to recalibrate county development priorities to focus on compact, mixed-use development near transit. Sadly, county council members weren't listening.

Developers lobby for more time to build

As originally drafted, bills CB-70 and CB-71 would have granted only a one-year extension to unbuilt projects approved as far back as January 2003. But the bills' sponsor, Councilmember Derrick Leon Davis, whose district includes suburbanizing communities like Westphalia, moved to amend the bills to grant a two-year extension to those projects, making them valid until December 31, 2015.

While the Coalition for Smarter Growth and I submitted written comments in opposition to the bills, it's likely that Davis was responding to the parade of developers' representatives who showed up to last week's PZED committee meeting to testify in favor of the bills. According to the committee minutes, seven developer attorneys testified, including Thomas Haller, Larry Taub, Norman Rivera, Ed Gibbs, André Gingles, Mike Nagy, and Chris Hatcher. Two lobbyists from the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, Marcus Jackson and Kenneth Dunn, testified as well.

Gingles, one of the attorneys, raised eyebrows this past December by suggesting that council member Eric Olson, who was in line to become the next council chair, was "too Arlington" for Prince George's County. And one of the lobbyists, Marcus Jackson, was a longtime legislative liaison for disgraced former county executive Jack Johnson, as well as a former policy analyst to District 8 council member Obie Patterson.

Ultimately, 4 of the 5 PZED committee members voted in favor of Davis's amended bills: committee chair Mel Franklin (District 9), vice chair Karen Toles (District 7), council chair Andrea Harrison (District 5), and council vice chair Obie Patterson (District 8). The committee's lone dissenting vote was from council member Eric Olson (District 3), who expressed concern that the legislation did not provide any incentive for developers to move forward with their projects.

Alternative bill would place requirements on extension

Olson proposed an alternative bill, CB-75, which would grant an extension of not more than 6 months to any dormant project that applies for and obtains required grading or building permits prior to the expiration of the existing validity period. The 6-month period would run from the date the building or grading permit is issued. The PZED Committee voted unanimously to forward this bill to the full council.

As currently drafted, Olson's bill does not have a sunset provision. Instead, it sets up a new procedure where developers could obtain an automatic 6-month extension of site plan validity periods for any project that is able to obtain a building or grading period prior to the expiration of its then-current validity period. Olson believes this new procedure will properly incentivize serious developers to keep their projects on schedule.

Prince George's needs sustainable development, not sprawl

Although there are nearly 15,000 approved suburban single-family homes in the pipeline, studies show that future homebuyers will be increasingly disinclined to buy them. Data from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and George Mason University suggests that to meet future market demand, upwards of 60% (or 31,200) of the 52,000 new homes Prince George's will need in the next 20 years should be multi-family homes.

CB-70, the bill that would extend the approvals for unbuilt subdivisions through 2015, will be introduced to the full council during their October 8 legislative session. It's unclear when the other bills will be introduced, as these do not (yet) appear on the agenda.

According to the council's standard legislative process, once a bill is introduced, a public hearing before the full council is scheduled to occur "not earlier than 14 days after introduction." Therefore, there is still time to let the council know what you think about these bills.

You should direct any written comments to the Clerk of the Council, and copy the individual council members, whose email addresses you may find in the Maryland Manual. You may also make limited oral public comments at the hearing.

The recent housing crisis is not the main reason why many of these approved suburban single-family sprawl developments have gone unbuilt for 10 years. There's simply less demand for the product these days. Instead of simply giving them the green light, county leaders would do well to rethink these projects and take advantage of the plentiful opportunities to build in established neighborhoods and around its 15 Metro stations.

A version of this post appeared in Prince George's Urbanist.

Bradley Heard is an attorney and citizen activist who resides in the Capitol Heights area of Prince George's County. A native of Virginia Beach and former longtime Atlanta resident, Brad hopes to encourage high-quality, walkable and bikeable development in the inner Beltway region of Prince George's County. 


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Are we supposed to assume all of the planned developments are bad developments?

by selxic on Oct 8, 2013 10:38 am • linkreport

"Too Arlington" = "too successful" I suppose.

Regardless of the county leadership, and only a tiny bit of state support, the Route 1 corridor in the northern county is gradually, fitfully going Arlington. That's where the new county tax revenues are coming from.

by Greenbelt on Oct 8, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

"Are we supposed to assume all of the planned developments are bad developments?"
In the minds of some, any development not on top of a Metro station is "bad development".

by ceefer66 on Oct 8, 2013 10:42 am • linkreport

it's like a bat signal for steve. I look forward to his comments.

I agree with the conclusion, that PG leaders should be taking advantage of their numerous metro stations. Even if those stations are not currently ideally situated for TOD (so many have huge parking lots!), it would still be better than encouraging further sprawl.

by Birdie on Oct 8, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp "Why?"

Replies the scorpion: "Its my nature..."

by oboe on Oct 8, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

@ selxic, No, as long as many of them are bad developments, that's reason enough not to grant a blanket approval for extension. If they're good, they can still get extensions individually or reapply.

by Ian on Oct 8, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

What a bunch of amateurs. Who needs a Tea Party with such conservative Democrats?

by Jasper on Oct 8, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

I don't think all suburban development is bad. It's a problem when developers get to cash out while county taxpayers foot the bill for a lot of new infrastructure. But the County really needs to get it together re: TOD when there is so much untapped potential as well. You can generate a lot of tax revenue for little additional outlay. Not even high rises but dense townhouses would make a lot of sense around most of the metro stations in the area.

by BTA on Oct 8, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

Well one caveat is they do need some serious ped/bike investments near the metro so you can get across the highways.

by BTA on Oct 8, 2013 12:56 pm • linkreport

+1 to Ian. Any stalled project (sprawl or non-sprawl) that hasn't gotten off the ground after 4 years of extensions should be declared dead and allowed to rest in peace. If the developers want to resurrect their projects, they can do so by reapplying and having them reevaluated under current conditions. If they're worried their projects won't survive scrutiny under current conditions, they probably shouldn't have been built anyway.

Let's be honest: some of those developer lawyers and MNCBIA lobbyists that showed up at the PZED hearing were likely there to advocate for "sweetheart approvals" their clients received under Jack Johnson's 8-year troubled reign of corruption over Prince George's County. Those developers know full well that those projects wouldn't be approved now, and probably shouldn't have been approved under the old standards.

by Bradley Heard on Oct 8, 2013 3:58 pm • linkreport

I completely agree with Bradley. Anything granted under Johnson should be suspicious. If it hasnt developed into something concrete by now, time to rescind.

What saddens me is that PGC keeps asking how to make life in PGC better for its residents, attract different sorts of retail and jobs, but keeps repeating the same development plans. Other counties with dense "smart growth" seem to be doing very well in their own dense areas.

by SJE on Oct 8, 2013 6:02 pm • linkreport

@SJE: It's enough to make you wonder if the outreach and citizen discussion is just a public relations gimmick with very little follow through, and ultimately a distraction from the fact that formless and costly sprawl is still happening in the county just as it has for the past 50 years.

by Laurence Aurbach on Oct 8, 2013 6:23 pm • linkreport

In the minds of some, any development not on top of a Metro station is "bad development".

I know what you mean. Take the proposed redevelopment of a small part of the UMD golf course into a dense town center. Even though the proposal will be walkable and potentially good urban form, some folks decry it's 2+ miles to metro and the loss of green space. Several county/state politicians publicly oppose the proposal but if you let the perfect be the enemy of the good, very little will ever get built.

by Falls Church on Oct 8, 2013 9:12 pm • linkreport

To stop this sort of things would require a coalition of people who favor smart growth and people who likes these subdivisions enough to buy property in or near them, but like where they live enough that they don't want to see the type of development in which they live taking over the remaining farms and forests nearby.

We often discuss the mentality of the slow growth NIMBY mentality on this site, but in the outer portions of the developing tier, isn't that exactly what we need? A strategic effort by Brad and CSG to reach out to folks could probably generate thousands of emails.

I imagine that at this point, the Council does not want to increase the cost of legitimate development, and hence is taking the chance that it is also enabling poor development.

I think it may be an overstatement to attribute this to sweetheart deals under Jack Johnson. His Administration did not issue the permits. They were issued by M-NCPPC whose District Council was largely the same people as those who are in office now. Probably more accurate to say that the permits were issued when PG Co real estate prices where 50% higher than today and banks would lend to anyone without verifying income.

by Jim Titus on Oct 8, 2013 9:15 pm • linkreport

Thank you for the link in the post. I will definitely comment.

by ArchStanton on Oct 8, 2013 9:45 pm • linkreport

@ Jim:
I think it may be an overstatement to attribute this to sweetheart deals under Jack Johnson.

I don't think so. Remember, in PGC, the M-NCPPC commissioners are appointed by the county executive, so they're somewhat beholden to him. Interestingly the MoCo commissioners are not appointed by the executive, but rather the council.

Also, only 4 of the 9 PGC council members are same as under Jack Johnson's administration. Camille Exum (D7), Tony Knotts (D8), Tom Dernoga (D1), Sam Dean (D6), and Marilynn Bland (D9) are all no longer on the council.

by Bradley Heard on Oct 8, 2013 10:26 pm • linkreport

Of course Betty Hewlett was Chair of M-NCPPC until 2005, as well as today. And the Council was hardly deferential to Johnson--remember how people regularly complained that the true county executive was the caucus of 6 members who formed an alliance to regularly over-ride his vetoes and essentially took the reins of government from him?

But we digress. The key challenge is to somehow engage the many people who live near all these developments, have little interest in TOD, but would gladly speak out against additional subdivisions in their neighborhood--especially if they are in any sense substandard. The NIMBY's are your natural ally.

by Jim Titus on Oct 8, 2013 11:04 pm • linkreport

You may be on to something there, Jim. There very well may be a core constituency of folks in south county who agree they don't want to see further proliferation of single-family homes out there.

by Bradley Heard on Oct 8, 2013 11:10 pm • linkreport

Hi: LOVE this blog - SO much more rational than the arguments here in the wild west. I moved to Maryland from LA as a teen kicking and screaming because my Dad's company got part of the Metro. He SO wanted to do engineering on stuff that we people need. So I agreed to move while hating it, but finished high school and college, ran back west, and then moved back to live in DC for 15 years. Now in Seattle for oh so many reasons, but back 'home' once or twice a year. And, loving visiting.

Whether we would move to build Metro or would the auto industry kill it was a matter of watching the news -- and a matter of would my family move cross country -- see in those old days, news casters would tell us that stuff on the nightly news. Realize THAT is how significant the DC Metro is to this day!

I lived half my life in DC and PG, now in WA State and gotta say that Growth Boundaries and transfer of development rights are really the only powerful tools that make the Pacific Northwest where I live be nice and be absorbing a lot of people. Maryland sprawl is awful and the red brick ubiquitous stuff is pretty awful and sprawl will never be prevented unless there are growth boundaries.

Now sprawl goes to the PA borders and all the farms are pretty much gone. Sigh. I believe in fully functional concise towns and the BIG city is not always the way. But, 10 miles of separation for watershed is proven to be purifying. I am also a believer that both parents working (and most often) being 2 hours or more away from their children is completely anti family. Seems like more complete towns is more humane. Whether people should be reproducing so much is an argument for another blog. But, even if ppl only have one child, my point still is true.

by Out of Towner on Oct 9, 2013 5:51 am • linkreport

As a south county resident, you can bet there is a large faction of citizens that isn't beholden to new development. We are choked with traffic sewers of 210, Rt 5 and 301. There isn't much infrastructure down here other than development after development.

I have absolutely no problem with PG refocusing efforts on improving the core areas closer to the district.

Also, I do see the value in certain developments, I'm not against every development ever. There are some developments that can still happen outside the beltway as part of existing commercial cores.

Down here in Accokeek, our Development Review District Committee tackles frivolous commercial developments that perplex us. We're not against new commercial sites, though we question the zoning approval from the county board when 3 car washes pop up within a mile radius of each other. It's one thing to have them pop up, but it's another to have them pop up in locations outside of our focused developing core.

We have a vision in our small town to have things pop up along the Livingston Road strip, it's got historic value and has the greatest concentration of stores so far, even if only paltry strip malls. The developments popping up are next to subdivisions taking over mature forest.

It'd be nicer if these new developments could happen closer to the core, but they're approved haphazardly. The only thing we can comment on are the design and architectural details, we can't necessarily stop them because we think it's a bad choice for the area.

This is what we have to deal with.

by Swftkat on Oct 9, 2013 3:52 pm • linkreport

The issue with PG County is that there are people(tax payers) that want more development near there homes which are outside the beltway such as Nowise, Upper Marlboro, and Fort Washington. Then there is the special interest groups that do not support shiney new development in the Maryland suburbs unless it is near transit stations which most of the suburban Maryland population do not reside near.

Greenbelt stations proves a true point that TOD is not the perfect end all to promoting new growth because they have been talking about developing Grernbelt and New Carrollton since the 1980's with no positive results.

Instead of bashing new development in PG county that is not near transit centers, push for funding to extend transit to the new developing areas. Resting and Tysons Corner are very good examples of dense development the build trains out their to support/compliment the dense development.

by Rick on Oct 10, 2013 12:04 pm • linkreport

@ Rick: But if PGC has done such a horrible job developing the 15 Metro stations it already has inside the Beltway, why would you assume that incurring hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars extending the transit system to outer Beltway suburbia is the right answer?

by Bradley Heard on Oct 10, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport

It's been proven that rapid transit is better built after an area has been developed especially if the development attracts huge population growth which means that there is support for rapid transit.

by Rick on Oct 10, 2013 12:49 pm • linkreport

It's been proven that rapid transit is better built after an area has been developed especially if the development attracts huge population growth which means that there is support for rapid transit.

Proven by who? The most successful transit systems created the density of the areas they are located in, not the other way around.

by MLD on Oct 10, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

Actually I don't think anyone in Nova thinks that doing Tysons first as an autocentric center, then spending huge amounts to rebuild it, was an optimal policy. It simply was never really planned. NoVa is making the best of a bad history.

Note also, Tysons is adjacent to the beltway, not far outside it.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 10, 2013 1:03 pm • linkreport

@MLD, so just ignore the fact that they have been talking since the 1980's about turning Greenbelt into a Crystal City style region but all they have to show for it 30 years later is a abandon bridge stub and land that has been cleared over 10 years now. Just ignore the fact that it took less than 10 years to develop Potomac Yards which has no transit center yet....

by Rick on Oct 10, 2013 1:33 pm • linkreport

Tyson's does not have a bad history or else it would have end up like the Landover Mall area years ago...

by Rick on Oct 10, 2013 1:38 pm • linkreport

Potomac Yards has been under discussion for eventual TOD since the big box stores came in, as placeholders, over 20 years ago. And PY is inside the beltway, and on a frequent bus line connecting it to Crystal City metro, which is not that far away. Its also immediately adjacent to existing relatively dense areas - Del Ray and the north end of Old Town.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 10, 2013 1:39 pm • linkreport

Tysons has a bad history in terms of larger FFX co planning issues related to congestion and transit. It does not necessarily face the same issues of crime, lower income driveshed, etc that places in PGC do.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 10, 2013 1:41 pm • linkreport

so just ignore the fact that they have been talking since the 1980's about turning Greenbelt into a Crystal City style region but all they have to show for it 30 years later is a abandon bridge stub and land that has been cleared over 10 years now. Just ignore the fact that it took less than 10 years to develop Potomac Yards which has no transit center yet....

You are seriously confusing cause and effect and confounding factors. Transit in undeveloped places won't necessarily be successful if the people in charge of the area do dumb things, which is exactly what this article is about. Your argument seems to boil down to "nobody lives inside the beltway in PG County" which is clearly untrue. One would think people inside the beltway in PG want things near their homes, so how come those things haven't come to fruition around Metro?

There is nothing like Reston or Tysons in PG County to build transit to. There are currently plenty of people living in the areas near Metro stations, the issue is that PG County can't figure out how to entice developers to build their amenity stuff right next to Metro. Instead you get National Harbor, Westphalia, and other disasters nowhere near transit. PG County needs to figure out how to utilize what they've got, because it doesn't seem like they would know what to do with more Metro further out.

by MLD on Oct 10, 2013 1:45 pm • linkreport

@ AWalkerInTheCity, Potomac Yards was not created due to transit however Greenbelt has failed to live up the hype that it van be built like Crystal City...

by Rick on Oct 10, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

There is no way the City of Alexandria would have approved the level of density at Potamac Yards absent plans for imminent transit (there will be a dedicated transityway opening there in 2014, BTW). As it was the rezoning was controversial, and a commitment to transit was central to the discussion.

But another factor in it being built was simply the fact that it was so close in.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 10, 2013 3:04 pm • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity, the same example can be used for the Westphalia project near the Beltway by Andrews AFB....

by Rick on Oct 10, 2013 4:30 pm • linkreport

when does common sense prevail. There are deadlines for everything. Developers should have to adhere to the same rules.

by bruce branch on Oct 31, 2013 12:03 am • linkreport

UPDATE: The public hearing on these sprawl bills has been set for Tuesday, November 19, at 10:00 am. Please get your public comments in and ask the Council to vote "NO" on sprawl!

by Bradley Heard on Nov 7, 2013 2:55 pm • linkreport

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