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Posts about Prince George's

Zoning


Can a new zoning code make Mt. Rainier inviting and affordable?

Long considered up and coming, Mount Rainier is a Prince George's neighborhood just east of the District line that's attracting investors and where house prices are rising. Typically, more zoning means higher housing costs, but Mount Rainier residents are trying to use zoning to keep their neighborhood inclusive and affordable. Is that possible?


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Mount Rainier's MO: cheap and funky

Mount Rainier is a historic streetcar suburb bordering DC's Ward 5 that has, for decades, been an affordable destination for renters and owners as well as a haven for interracial, gay, and immigrant families. It's a diverse community, where multiculturalism is not an ideology, but a way of life.

A major part of the city's charm is this neighborly community vibe, which in turn is created and encouraged by the city's urban fabric: early 1900s vernacular architecture including porches near the sidewalks, front yard art installations, and other community-building features. Today, the motto of the local grocery co-op sums it up: "still cheap, still funky."

Today, Mount Rainier is still mostly a cozy collection of small bungalows and Victorians. But home prices are spiraling up, making renovations a hot topic.

Mount Rainier has been here before: Prior to the bursting of the early 2000s real estate bubble, Mount Rainier saw a wave of ambitious home renovations that peppered cheap and/or architecturally deaf flips and McMansions amidst the subsequent foreclosure crisis.


A Mount Rainier house during renovations. Photo by Milo Shepherdson.

Mount Rainier might change its zoning

In a process tracing back to the aforementioned era, the Mount Rainier community is considering a new zoning overlay to cover its single family homes. This Architectural Conservation Overlay Zone (ACOZ) has been proposed as a middle ground between a flipping free-for-all and a restrictive historic district.

The goal of the ACOZ is to encourage renovation and new home construction that is compatible with the existing built environment while preventing poorly executed projects.

As currently proposed, new code would impose detailed design standards and significantly expand the cases in which a building permit is required for residential home construction and renovations.

All homeowners would receive a "pattern book" with guidance and resources about maintaining Mount Rainier's residential architectural fabric, and a local committee would review applications for any project that required a permit to ensure compliance with the standards.

This might sound scary to some, but this is actually exactly how the process works now: A volunteer design review board already reviews many house renovation permits in Mount Rainier, so there is ample precedent for this type of review. Considering that current county zoning requires the board to review permits for residential fences, fears of the ACOZ creating a significant new permitting hurdle may well be overstated.

This has worked in Mount Rainier before

Conventional wisdom says that land use controls like zoning increase the cost of construction and restrict supply, making housing less affordable. And while most would support the laudable goal of maintaining the much loved sleepy neighborhood look, there is always a concern for unintended consequences.

Luckily, this is not Mount Rainier's first experiment with trying to invent a type of zone that both welcomes growth and incorporates the existing built environment.

In 1994 Prince George's County created the first Mixed Use Town Center zone in Mount Rainier, the goal being to revitalize traditional storefronts and invigorate the commercial district. The award-winning 2010 update of this plan established a community vision for a revitalized downtown Mount Rainier as a walkable, green, lively neighborhood-oriented retail center.

As many communities nationwide chase major chains or tourism dollars, Mount Rainier has recommitted to the local, the independent, and the original, saving environmental and financial resources with adaptive reuse of our historic buildings. The MUTC plan incentivizes historic reuse by imposing far more stringent review requirements on new construction, and establishes design standards to promote compatible and quality development.


Image from Prince George's County.

Redevelopment in Mount Rainier is also shaped by a second, larger zoning overlay known as the Gateway Arts District that stretches from the District border up Rhode Island Ave through Brentwood, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville. The Arts District was created in 2001 to provide policy infrastructure for the further development of the local economy and existing arts community, prohibiting many land uses and establishing at times extremely detailed visual standards for buildings and signage.

Nationally, multijurisdictional arts districts are all but unheard of, and the Gateway Arts District remains very much a community-driven experiment in progress. The dream of rezoning specific properties from conventional residential, commercial, and industrial categories to flexible mixed-use zoning that enables arts entrepreneurs to locate is in part confounded by the challenges created by requiring compliance with the zone's detailed design standards. It is unclear if recent developments like conversion of Mount Rainier's historic firehouse into Red Dirt Studios happen because or in spite of the zoning overlay.

A positive outcome isn't guaranteed

There's no guarantee that we can truly achieve our shared goals through yet more zoning. Chapel Hill, NC, used a similar zoning overlay somewhat differently to police tensions between owners and investors managing homes as rentals. There, advocates for "neighborhood conservation" draw a distinction between renting homes to families versus group houses of unrelated individuals, a sign of both town-gown and anti-immigrant tensions.

Payton Chung recently drew attention to a case in LA "of what Mike Davis called 'slow-growth Know-Nothingism,' Anglos are using their superior access to the machinery of zoning and local elections to write into law their feelings about 'those' people."

The Mount Rainier community is at a turning point where it must make choices. Do we let the hand of the free market move over the city, or is our local government capable of implementing a well-intentioned and well-designed public process to regulate residential development? Will the ACOZ worsen already difficult permitting processes, drive up the cost of renovation, and create a historic preservation mafia? Or can preservation and affordable housing coexist?

The past and the present are colliding in Mount Rainier, as they have in many other once-affordable historic neighborhoods like Brookland, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring. We believe Mount Rainier is special. Can we achieve a different outcome?

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Transit


Lots of Maryland residents from places other than Montgomery and Prince George's use Metro

Although WMATA's impact on Maryland is most significant in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, the system is important to the entire state. 5% of daily Metrorail total ridership comes from Maryland locations outside of those jurisdictions.


Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Every Maryland Metro station is in Montgomery or Prince George's County, but we have long known that Maryland Metro riders come from all over the state. A typical morning at Union Station finds a flow of MARC train commuters going from the commuter rail line to the subway. Other residents from southern Maryland, for example, access the system by parking at Prince George's County stations.

While lawmakers in Annapolis often see WMATA as a Montgomery and Prince George's County issue, the system affects a much larger portion of Marylanders.

The study includes the origination and destination of Maryland riders, purpose of the trip, and how riders get to and from the system. You can read the full study here, and some major takeaways are below:

  • Only a small majority (52%) of Maryland Metrorail riders access the system by car, with the rest using other modes such as bus, bike, or foot.
  • While 34% of Montgomery County riders access Metro by foot in the morning, just 11% in Prince George's County riders do so. That suggests that investment in transit-oriented development in the two counties has not been equal.
  • 5% of rail and bus system riders commute from DC and Virginia into Maryland each weekday morning, representing a not insignificant reverse commute.
  • 3.3% of all rail and bus trips on a typical weekday are by Maryland residents besides those living in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties.
  • 5% of daily Metrorail ridership on a typical weekday is by Maryland residents besides those in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties.
  • There are thousands of Metrorail riders from jurisdictions in Maryland besides Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. The data should be more focused in future reports, as right now WMATA only studies five non-Montgomery and Prince George's categories of origins.
WMATA capital and operating subsidies represent a rising cost for the state of Maryland even though WMATA is not increasing the jurisdictional operating subsidy this year. For Maryland's investment to continue to grow—and if WMATA is going to be a world class system again, it's going to have to—it's important to have data such as this to support Maryland's role in the system.

The study, which a 2015 General Assembly bill called for, was part of a broader effort to increase attention to WMATA issues in the state house. It's now required every five years, and future versions should have even more specific data.

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Transit


These two Prince George's neighborhoods show how bike trails help neighborhoods

Riverdale Park and East Riverdale are two neighboring communities just east of Hyattsville in Prince George's County. One is thriving while the other has struggled. One reason could be that the Riverdale Park is near bike trails, while East Riverdale is blocked from them.


Riverdale Park and East Riverdale. Image by Dan Reed. Base map from ESRI, with boundaries from the Census Bureau.

As part of an effort to extend the WB&A Trail south toward DC, Bike Maryland and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association studied property values and housing patterns in several Prince George's county neighborhoods. The large differences in property values between neighborhoods with close proximity to bike trails and other nearby communities with few non-car transport options was striking.

As part of the study, the organization divided whole communities into those that have good access to trails (Hyattsville, Riverdale Park, Edmonston) and those that have poor bike access or are otherwise "carlocked" by major uncrossable roads (Woodlawn, East Riverdale, Landover Hills). They also looked at properties within 200 meters of a bike facility and those beyond 200m of a bike facility, both within communities and overall.


A heat map of bike infrastructure in Prince George's County. The area where Bike Maryland and WABA want to expand the WB&A Trail is circled in yellow. Image from Bike Maryland.

Two neighboring communities highlight the contrasts

For example, let's compare East Riverdale, where there is no safe place to bike or walk, either for recreation or for commuting and utility, with Riverdale Park, where there are far more options.

Riverdale is a burgeoning community with a lively farmer's market, a nascent craft beer scene, a weekly blues jam, and easy walking and bike access to the new Hyattsville Arts district and a revitalized Route 1, which has several new restaurants. A trendy new development anchored by a Whole Foods market is under construction just north of town.

But East Riverdale, which is just across Route 201, has been designated as a Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative community, meaning it faces "significant economic, health, public safety and educational challenges."


Riverdale Park. Base image from Google Maps.


East Riverdale. Base image from Google Maps.

Median housing values are more than $30,000 higher in Riverdale Park ($246,200) than in East Riverdale ($215,500), and assessments are about $50,000 higher ($215,800 in Riverdale Park vs. $163,700 in East Riverdale). Riverdale Park's value per acre ($995,000) is nearly 10 percent higher than East Riverdale's ($908,000).

Houses in East Riverdale are actually newer and larger than those in Riverdale Park. East Riverdale also has more single-family housing and fewer buildings with large numbers of units, there's more owner-occupied housing, and its houses have more rooms; all of these things are often associated with higher home values.

The demographic characteristics of the residents in Riverdale Park and East Riverdale are similar, with approximately half of the residents of Hispanic of Latino heritage (48% in Riverdale Park vs. 53% in East Riverdale). Downtown Riverdale Park has a MARC commuter rail station with some charming pre-WWII homes and cottages nearby, although the commercial area around it seemed relatively lifeless and contained several abandoned buildings until recently. On balance, looking at individual street views of East Riverdale's and Riverdale Park's housing stocks, it is certainly not obvious that East Riverdale would have dramatically lower housing values.

It's quite possible that the reason Riverdale Park is being revitalized while East Riverdale has struggled economically goes back to basic community design: East Riverdale's layout forces residents to drive everywhere, and residents can't easily walk to the market or ride their bikes to work.

Meanwhile, as younger residents who are not particularly attached to driving look for affordable place to live, Riverdale Park is a more attractive choice. The new energy attracted to the neighborhood creates an upward cycle of renovation.

To note: The comparison data on the housing characteristics and demographics of households in East Riverdale and Riverdale come from the US Census American Community Survey (ACS) for 2009-2013. Tax valuation data are from PG Atlas, gathered in June and July of 2015.

Can transit turn East Riverdale around?


Caption: East Riverdale is Blocked from the Anacostia Tributary Trails by a Major Highway, MD Route 201; map by Google maps.

It's possible that the Purple Line, which will affect East Riverdale more than Riverdale Park, may switch economic momentum back to the east over the next 10 or 20 years. The Purple Line and its feeder walks and bike routes (if any) should make it easier to get around without a car.

Granted, a more desirable neighborhood layout, with more transportation options, will attract higher income residents, who, in turn, attract more businesses and amenities, making the neighborhood even more desirable in an self-reinforcing cycle. It is very difficult, and can be a fool's errand, to try to accurately say that any one item makes a neighborhood more or less desirable when every contributing factor is related to every other!

But we certainly want to make county leaders aware of the fact that the carlocked neighborhoods in Prince George's County contribute much less per acre to county's tax rolls than trail-accessible neighborhoods. We hope our county will agree to build more great bike trails in the county and thereby test our hypothesis that unlocking carlocked neighborhoods could lift whole communities!

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Bicycling


Bike paths are good for business, says the president of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce

Some people were skeptical that Shortcake Bakery would succeed. After all, it's next to grungy strip of auto repair shops along Route 1 in Hyattsville. But David Harrington, the president of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce, whose wife opened the bakery, says the shop's location had an "unexpected asset": a nearby bike path.

David Harrington was the featured speaker at a economic development conference hosted by the Greenbelt Community Development Corporation last month. His personal experience with how bike trails can be advantageous for businesses was just one of the things he talked about.

"I can tell you one of the unexpected assets that we have at the bakery is that… it is near a bike path," said Harrington, referring to the Northwest Branch Trail, which is part of the Anacostia Tributary Trail system. "Cheryl and I always pray for good weather on Saturdays," he added, saying that when that happens "we may have 30 [cyclists] stop at Shortcake Bakery as they're going to Baltimore, going to College Park. It is a wonderful business asset."


Base image from Google Maps.

"If you create these bike paths and … create nice connectors for bicyclists to do commerce, that is an amazing business opportunity," he continued. "Walkability and bikeability are … strong economic tools that can help create entrepreneurship, and I think we need to look at that a lot closer than we are."

The Old Greenbelt Theater hosted the conference. Here's a link to the full video: http://greenbeltlive.com/greenbelts-economic-development/

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Roads


A lot more people will ride Metro (and not drive) if the FBI makes a smart choice on where to move

Our region has been discussing where the FBI will move for years. A new analysis shows the choice is between a good option (Greenbelt), a mostly-good option (Springfield), and a pretty terrible option (Landover). Let's hope the federal government makes the right call.


Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

The FBI wants to leave its aging headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, and many in the District would not be sad to see it go. The FBI, like other security-related agencies, wants a high-security fortress with impenetrable walls and what amounts to a moat. That's not ideal in downtown DC, where shops, restaurants, condominiums, and top-tier office space are all in high demand. The block-size dead zone that is the Hoover Building in its current state is bad enough.

The current FBI site does have it's upsides: it's near every single Metro line and countless buses, and since it's in the center of the region it's not very far from anyone. A new site near the Beltway, like the three finalists, all will force longer commutes on at least some people, and push more people to drive, increasing traffic.

How much traffic, however, depends very much on how close the site is to Metro. Build a new headquarters next to a Metro station and near bus lines, and many people will use it; force people to take a shuttle bus, and many fewer will bother.

The more people ride Metro, the better for all of us

Even residents who have no ties to the FBI should care deeply about this important decision. Metro is struggling from low ridership that is squeezing its budget, thanks to maintenance woes, cuts in federal transit benefits, management failures, safety fears, and much more. Our region needs a healthy Metro system to move the hordes of commuters that traverse the region every day.

One of the best ways to strengthen Metro is to use "reverse commute" capacity. Trains are the same size and number going both in and out of downtown, of course; if they're full going in but empty going out, that's a lot of wasted capacity. Large employment centers at outer stations, like at Medical Center, Suitland, and now with the Silver Line, Tysons Corner, drive that reverse traffic. Plus, research has shown that people feel much more willing to use the train if the office is very close to a transit station; a short to medium drive, walk, or bike ride is more palatable from home to the train than on the other end.

No shuttle at Greenbelt; a long shuttle at Landover

According to the recently-released Environmental Impact Statement, an FBI headquarters at Greenbelt could mean up to 47% of workers, or 5,170 people a day, could ride Metro, and they would mostly be using the extra space on reverse peak direction Green Line trains. There would only be 3,600 parking spaces, meaning at most only 3,600 more cars on the Beltway and other roads.

A site in Springfield, Virginia, is almost as good; the station is 0.3 miles from the potential site, and the General Services Administration estimates there would need to be a shuttle, though many people would not need it; this is similar to the distances at Suitland, where there is a bus but many people walk. The EIS predicts 4,070 riders, or 37% of workers, take Metro, and also 3,600 spaces.

Landover, meanwhile, is far, far worse. That site is 1.9 miles from Metro, much too far for walking and forcing everyone to ride a shuttle (which would also take longer, naturally). The EIS estimates only 19% of people ride Metro and a need for 7,300 parking spaces, or about double the added traffic.

These Metro mode share estimates do seem too high—all of them, but definitely Landover. According to public ridership data from WMATA, the Suitland and New Carrollton office parks are getting about 10% of workers riding Metro. It strains credulity that 19% of FBI workers would ride a shuttle to a site 2 miles from the station when 10% don't do the same for a much shorter half mile trip.


Suitland. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Will everyone who can't park take Metro?

Why the discrepancy? The methodology assumes strict limits on parking based on the National Capital Planning Commission's policies. NCPC limits parking to one space per three employees at federal facilities outside DC but within 2,000 feet of a Metro station, and one space per 1.5 employees farther from Metro. That's a very progressive policy that pushes federal agencies to help their employees get to work in ways other than solo driving.

The EIS assumes anyone who can't park will ride Metro, except for a carpool/vanpool rate based on similar federal installations of 10-11%. But will the FBI obey? The National Institutes of Health, right at a Metro station, has been resisting NCPC's policy; the FBI surely has even greater clout if it wanted to build massive amounts of parking. And even if it didn't, it seems doubtful that the lack of parking, while a strong motivating force, would push 19% of employees onto Metro and then a long shuttle ride.

Regardless, it's clear that a choice for Greenbelt or Springfield would help the FBI have a positive impact on Metro's health and minimize the traffic effects, while Landover would do the opposite. Because there are more jobs on the west side of the region than the east, the Beltway and other roads similarly have extra capacity going east, which is one of several reasons why adding jobs to Prince George's County also will strengthen our region.

The federal government may ignore all of the impacts on other commuters and our region's transportation systems when making the decision about a site, but drivers, Metro riders, and just all taxpayers whose dollars help fund the roads and rails should hope the choice is a wise one.

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Development


Prince George's zombie subdivisions need to die

Prince George's County has a backlog of suburban-style subdivisions that were approved for construction years ago, but never built. Now, the county faces a choice: Let those projects live on and sap up demand, or cancel them so more urban developments can rise.


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.

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.

Instead of extending them for two more years, through the end of 2017, it's time for the council to give up the ghost on these long-dead projects.

Zombie projects are clogging the county's pipeline

About 80% of the development projects approved but not yet constructed in Prince George's County are low-density single-family homes. Over 13,000 of them are planned for outside of the Beltway, away from transit. This chart from 2011 shows just how widely spread out these projects are:


Image from M-NCPPC.

But the county already has more single-family units than it knows what to do with, and developers seemingly haven't found it to be in their financial interest to pursue more of these projects for years.

Everyone but the council seems to realize these projects are effectively dead. It simply makes no sense to keep trying to bring these zombie projects back to life.

County planners have already concluded that such scattered sprawl 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."

Moreover, the county's continued 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."

When approving the current General Plan last year, the existing pipeline of approved-but-unbuilt projects outside of the Beltway led planners and the council to conclude that the county actually had "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 allow these old projects to die a natural death, developers and planners could reorient their efforts to smarter projects. Even if the market later shows there's still demand for single family homes, starting over would give officials a chance to design them with more walkable streets.

Ideally, the county could direct some much-needed attention towards its gateway neighborhoods and Metro stations near DC.

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. If the committee votes to favorably recommend the bill, the full council will then consider it at a later date.

Residents can attend the PZED meeting in person, or submit written comments. Use this link to address comments to PZED Chair Andrea Harrison, with copies to committee director Jackie Brown and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone.

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

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Development


Prince George's is way behind on smart growth. Courts are helping it catch up.

For decades, Prince George's County has seen less commercial and high-density residential development than its peers in Montgomery, Arlington, and Fairfax, particularly around its 15 Metro stations. That could begin to change now that Maryland's highest court has smoothed the path for new development there.


Maryland court image from Shutterstock.

In a game-changing decision last month, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the Prince George's County Council cannot deny approval of new development projects after the county's planning board approves them, except in extreme circumstances.

Previously, the council's ability to overrule planning board decisions made it nearly impossible to predict which developments might ultimately win approval, and which might never see the light of day.

With such uncertainty hanging over every proposal, developers stayed away. Now, with much less threat of a last-minute council veto, developers may become more likely to build quality projects in Prince George's.

Details of the court case

The court ruling states the council cannot overrule decisions of the planning board in development review matters unless those decisions lacked supporting evidence or were otherwise arbitrary, capricious, or illegal.

Maryland law gives the Prince George's County Planning Board broad authority to review and either approve or deny development proposals.

The county council, on the other hand, has more discrete, but nevertheless significant, powers under state law when it comes to development. It appoints members of the planning board, sets zoning, and rules on appeals from the planning board. But the council cannot, according to this court ruling, overrule the board's decisions on individual development cases, unless the board committed some sort of legal error.

Before this decision, the county council always purported to exercise "original jurisdiction" when it reviewed the planning board's decisions. This allowed the council to decide cases however it wanted, as long as there was evidence to support their decision.

The court, however, said that approach was incorrect. The county council does not have original jurisdiction. Rather, like an appeals court, the county council only has "appellate jurisdiction," meaning it has to assume the planning board's decision was correct, unless the board's decision was legally wrong or wholly lacked evidence.

In other words, the council can no longer simply take development review into its own hands and overrule the planning board's judgment whenever it wants.

Importantly, the court's decision does not eliminate public input from the process. The public still has a full right to argue before the planning board, and can still appeal to the council and then to the courts if they are aggrieved by the board's decision. However, appeals must be based on a legal error, not simple opposition to the project.

The CVS that started it all

This lawsuit arose out of a nearly 10-year effort to build a CVS in Adelphi.


A CVS. Not the one in Adelphi. Photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

The case began in 2004, when the county rezoned the property to allow retail. In 2011, a developer submitted a site plan for the CVS. The planning board approved the site plan, saying it met the rules of the retail zone.

No one appealed the planning board's decision, so everything seemed a go. Until the county council called up the case. They wanted changes, so they sent it back to the planning board with instructions to reconsider a few issues.

In 2012, the planning board approved the site plan again, this time with a few modifications in response to the council's requests. Again, no one appealed.

But once again, the council called up the case for review. This time, they denied the application altogether, after the council member in whose district the property lay spoke against it.

The council listed 14 reasons for its denial, none of which related to the original issues the council had first raised in its 2011 call up.

The developer sued, and three successive courts found the county council in the wrong.

A win for smart growth

A suburban-style CVS in Adelphi may not be the kind of development smart growth advocates usually hope for. But this case will ultimately make approval of genuine smart growth projects easier, by reducing the role of politics in development review.

Bottom line: No longer will developers have to work for years on a seemingly-approvable project, only to have the council yank the floor out from beneath them at the eleventh hour. Rather than leaving development up to the political whims of the county council, this court decision will hopefully allow objective law to rule Prince George's County development review.

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

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