Prince George’s Council approves plan to speed development around transit stations

The Prince George’s County Council on Tuesday took a major step to simplify and speed up development approval at transit stations, unanimously passing a bill that officials hope will spark new growth and create jobs.

The measure, crafted by Council members Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) and Eric Olson (D-College Park), could trim as much as a year from the review process for projects that are deemed high quality and that promote walkable communities. It also limits the council’s ability to stall projects indefinitely, a long-standing and controversial practice that has frustrated residents and developers.

Luring new jobs and businesses has been one of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s top priorities as he tries to expand the county’s commercial tax base to increase county revenue. Development has lagged in the county compared with the rest of the Washington region, but lately, there have been signs that the economic climate in Prince George’s is beginning to improve.

Prince George’s has 15 Metro stations and several MARC stations, but few have major development nearby.

“It is a significant statement,” said Derick Berlage, chief of the Prince George’s planning agency’s countywide review division. “It is a constructive move for the county to make.”

The bill gives preferences to developers who propose projects with federal tenants, a move that county officials hope will help them lure the FBI headquarters from downtown D.C. to Prince George’s.

The bill encourages a mixture of moderate and high-density development within walking distance of a transit station, with the most intense density and highest building heights nearest the station. The proposed developments would then be encouraged to scale down closer to surrounding neighborhoods.

The legislation, which was backed by the Baker administration, is a zoning measure, which does not require the signature of Baker (D). It takes effect in 45 days, Franklin said.

“We have tried to focus on a process that is simple, timely and predictable,” said Aubrey Thagard, a top economic development official in Baker’s administration.

“This presents a real opportunity to create a process for transit-oriented development that is exactly that. It helps make the climate for transit-oriented development more palatable to the development community,” he said.

Thagard said that no developers had said that passage of the bill would immediately result in new applications to build at transit stations. But the development community was closely watching the bill as it made its way through the council this spring, and several developers signaled support.

Olson earlier this year persuaded the Prince George’s delegation in the General Assembly to approve a bill that reduces the amount of school fees that developers pay when they build at transit stations.

Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, praised the bill for “creating a streamlined review process while still maintaining planning board review and public input. It gives a predictable timetable.”

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