Ruling could make building projects easier in Prince George’s

A recent appeals court decision could make it significantly easier for developers to build projects in Prince George’s County by limiting the ability of county lawmakers to intervene.

Maryland’s Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the Prince George’s County Council exceeded its authority to review and revise development decisions made by the county planning board.

The ruling involved a proposed retail center in Adelphi that was approved by the planning board but later put on hold by the council, which wanted the developer to make design changes, including the number of trees to be planted on the property.

“The District Council possessed only appellate jurisdiction to review the Planning Board’s decisions,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell wrote. The council “was authorized to reverse the decision . . . only if the Board’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence, was arbitrary, capricious, or illegal otherwise.”

Developers and their attorneys say the decision will bring Prince George’s in line with neighboring jurisdictions, putting an end to an era in which county residents could turn to their council representatives to try to stop projects that they didn’t want in their neighborhoods.

Until now, interference by the council has made development in Prince George’s “sort of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ experience,” said attorney Timothy Maloney, who represented Zimmer Development Company in its bid to build the retail strip.

“The council adds years to the development process,” Maloney said, “and has harmed the [county’s] economic development reputation.”

County-elected leaders requested the unique, quasi-judicial authority from the Maryland General Assembly decades ago, arguing that “the public needed to have a bigger voice in development decisions,” said Council Chair Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro). He said lawmakers are assessing the implications of the appeals court’s ruling.

Citizens can still participate in public hearings held by the planning board. But civic activist Kelly Canavan, who has fought several developments in southern Prince George’s, said that she and other activists often leave those sessions feeling powerless.

“The planning board kind of does what it wants and is extremely developer-friendly,” she said, adding that the council “was one of the few ways a citizen could ask for help when a real awful development was coming to their community.”

Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, disagreed, saying that planning board members are professionals who are guided by zoning rules that offer little room for outside influence.

Cort said the court ruling offers the board a chance to invite more citizen participation, because residents no longer have the council to turn to except in certain circumstances. She said she hopes the planning board will schedule more meetings in the evening, so residents can attend more easily, and will publish its public notices more widely.

Longtime observers said one reason the council came to play such a major role in development decisions was that the county’s zoning rules are complicated and antiquated, and in some cases ill-suited to guide modern-day development.

The county is rewriting the nearly half-century-old code to reflect the jurisdiction’s changing needs and improve public participation. Planning officials say their goal is to simplify a code that, over the years, has grown to include more than 50 zones detailed on more than 1,200 pages.

“The zones have not kept up with the modern economy,” Franklin said. “There is not a great deal of confidence in our zones. The rules are not very clear.”

The county wants to require higher-density development around public transit and establish clearer boundaries for its rural and agricultural sector.

Planning and zoning officials are asking for public input and expect the rewrite to be approved by the summer of 2017.

“We should have more robust ways for citizens to get involved in the development review process early,” Franklin said. “Then, when you get to the end stages of the process, it will be much clearer to everybody the direction that the development is going. That’s the ultimate goal: to have stronger rules and more certainty on the front end.”

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