Tag: Planning Board

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.”

Read this at The Washington Post >>

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.

Photos courtesy of Greater Greater Washington.

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Transit Advocates Pushing For Support In Bus Rapid Transit Debate

Transit advocates are going on the offensive after the Montgomery County Planning Board expressed some reluctance toward the idea of wiping out a lane of regular Rockville Pike traffic for Bus Rapid Transit-exclusive lanes.

That idea, presented in Planning Staff’s Draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan a few weeks ago, almost immediately drew skepticism from residents and Planning Board members.

The D.C. based Coalition for Smarter Growth sent an email to supporters on Thursday asking people in favor of the BRT-dedicated lane to email Planning Board members ahead of next week’s second meeting on the Draft, set for Thursday, April 4.

In it, CSG asks “Will we continue to place cars above all else in the decisions we make, or will we begin to make a shift towards providing better options for people than sitting in traffic?”

Montgomery’s proposed Rapid Transit System can transform travel in our county, but there are a number of potential hurdles. This week we are approaching one of those hurdles and we need your voice.

A key part of the Rapid Transit System’s recipe for traffic relief is giving priority to rapid transit vehicles over cars where it’s the most efficient use of our roads. It’s also a principle that has been part of Montgomery’s general plan since 1993. But in hearings last week, some members of the Planning Board appeared to waver in their commitment to this key principle.

As the hearings pick up again, we need to make sure that Montgomery residents are voicing their support for lane priority so that we don’t end up with a watered-down system that makes no impact on reducing traffic.

County staff are hard at work calculating which roads would be the best fit for a high-quality, reliable Rapid Transit System to connect our communities and complement Metro and the coming Purple Line.

Priority lanes for transit aren’t a new idea. 20 years ago, the 1993 Master Plan’s transportation section stated we should “Give priority to establishing exclusive travelways for transit and high occupancy vehicles serving the Urban Ring and Corridor.”

Communities committed to prioritizing transit, like Arlington, Bethesda, and many others have seen success in relieving traffics, providing better options for people to get around, and improving quality of life.  But last week’s Planning Board discussions indicate that they may be wavering on that fundamental point, and that they may need some convincing that prioritizing transit where it’s most efficient is the right decision for the county.

Without a commitment to that concept, building a high quality Rapid Transit System could be very difficult. The debate really comes down to this: How will we share the road?  Will we continue to place cars above all else in the decisions we make, or will we begin to make a shift towards providing better options for people than sitting in traffic?

Many are against the proposal to make three-lane northbound and southbound Rockville Pike from the Beltway to the D.C. line into two lanes of regular traffic with a lane that would be dedicated exclusively to the BRT system, perhaps with stations and boarding areas in the median.

Residents have complained that the BRT system won’t be convenient enough for them to use for non-commuting purposes and that ridership would not offset the traffic impacts of reducing three lanes of already clogged traffic to two.

The Planning Board sent Planning Staff back to the drawing board in order to find new language for the Draft that would put drivers at ease.

“To me, this document screams that we don’t care what happens to drivers and I’m not comfortable taking that position,” Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier told lead Planning Staff member Larry Cole during the first worksession on March 18.

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