‘Expedited’ zoning changes at Bowie’s Freeway Airport criticized

For years, there’s been just enough support on the Prince George’s County Council for a rezoning of Bowie’s Freeway Airport. The owners of the Maryland airport hope to sell the land to developers, who want to build hundreds of new townhomes on the site.

Neighboring residents spent just as long fighting the plan, arguing Church Road would not be able to handle the increased traffic volume such a development would bring. Earlier this year, they won a legal battle over how the council rezoned the land — which in the least, put the project on pause.

But in recent months, there’s been a new effort to change the zoning for the airport again, and following the decision from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals, that process is getting “expedited.”

It’s left residents fuming all summer long, and at Tuesday’s County Council hearing, it’s clear some members are just as angry about what’s going on.

Following an update from the county’s Park and Planning Commission on where things stood in regard to zoning changes around Bowie and Mitchellville, council member Tom Dernoga asked why the commission wasn’t giving the usual 15 days before closing the public record on these sorts of issues following public hearings.

Thomas Lester — who is the project manager overseeing the changes to the Bowie-Mitchellville and vicinity zoning maps — pointed out that in this case, it wasn’t legally required.

Then, Dernoga prefaced his next questions by saying it might be helpful to have a lawyer ready to speak, before pointing out that the first schedule had a 15-day period.

“Why did you change it?” Dernoga asked.

After a two-second pause, Lester said, “I would defer to clerk of council or maybe council’s legal staff to answer that question.”

Asked by Dernoga if that meant park and planning staff wasn’t setting the schedule, Lester repeated his last answer.

“The original proposal was 15 days. It’s been cut to seven days and nobody wants to take credit for making that decision,” Dernoga said.

But emails Dernoga and other members of the council have obtained shed some light. At least some of those emails have also been shared with WTOP.

On July 8, Kierre McCune, a planning supervisor for the county, wrote to his staff saying the council was providing four days’ notice to begin initiating the new map for that region, when typically they get at least 30 days.

This was being done at the request of the clerk of the council, Donna Brown, and council member Todd Turner. In his email, McCune called it “not an idea (sic) situation.”

Ten days later, Brown sent an email to Lester and McCune, asking if there was a way to speed up the process so a joint public hearing on the changes would happen on Sept. 27, instead of Oct. 11, allowing for a full planning board endorsement by Oct. 20.

That same day, McCune responded that it wouldn’t be possible. Days later, another email from McCune to his staff said Angie Rodgers — the deputy chief administrative officer for County Executive Angela Alsobrooks — ordered the planning board to move the public hearing to September anyway, and the department’s summer interns were tasked with helping to make it happen.

“Each stage of the process has been shortened dramatically,” Dernoga said during Tuesday’s update, referring to the emails he filed a public information act with the county to obtain.

“It’s one thing to say that there’s flexibility. There’s another thing to compress the schedule in a way that brings into question the integrity of the entire process,” he said.

“At some point if park and planning is to have any integrity, they have to stand up.”

“To deal with this, because the staff objections were not listened to, you threw your summer interns at the project,” said Dernoga. “That is complete and utter embarrassment for Prince George’s County and the Park and Planning Commission.”

Council member Ed Burroughs also ripped into park and planning staff during the hearing.

“It appears that park and planning refused to be forthright in answering [Dernoga’s] questions,” said Burroughs. He called the emails “quite disturbing.”

“For some reason, all the processes were accelerated against all of the judgment of the staff in park and planning,” he said. “It was very clear that there’s more to this story that really does jeopardize, I believe, the integrity of the institution.”

“Councilman Dernoga was attempting, in my view, to voice those out in the record, and park and planning — essentially its position seems to be that ‘we will not talk about these matters openly.'”

Subsequent emails referred to by Burroughs show that by July 25, the planning department ultimately mapped out a timeline that would allow the planning board to endorse the changes by Oct. 20, so that the County Council could sign off of it on Oct. 25, in what is its last meeting before the November election.

After that, the council doesn’t return to session until December, when a new council is seated and several current members are no longer involved. Council member Jolene Ivey accused her colleagues of racing to beat the clock for that specific reason.

“Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions,” said Ivey, who also said the process seemed “very much tied to the election with having an idea of who might win and who might be able to vote on this going forward.”

She added: “If the normal process had been followed, this would not have been completed until January, when we’d have a new council and a new majority. When you get to the point that you’re asking interns to do the work of real professionals, it’s deeply troubling to me.”

Turner, who initiated things, defended the process at hand during the council meeting, and he specifically denied that the election and looming change to the makeup of the council influenced anything.

“We’re all getting used to, not necessarily a new process, but a process that had not been used before,” he said, describing the differences in the zoning processes that allow this to speed up.

“This is the first one that we’ve done,” he said, calling it a unique circumstance.

“There weren’t the same requirements … so that did give some flexibility” to change the process that residents are used to, while still keeping the process legal, he said.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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