Anti-business or anti-sprawl? Prince George’s Co. council cancels long list of zoning laws

In recent years, residents in Prince George’s County have grown frustrated over the approval of certain development projects despite opposition from those who were most likely to be impacted.

At a Prince George’s County council meeting Tuesday, however, it was developers and commercial property owners who complained to no avail about the passage of several development bills — while some county residents cheered.

The county council took just a few weeks to undo what the previous council had done over a period of years, rescinding numerous pieces of zoning legislation impacting residential and commercial property use.

The bill that got the most discussion came early in Tuesday’s hearing, and it concerned a bill that rescinded a previous zoning exception that Maryland’s second highest court ruled was granted illegally.

An appeal to that ruling — which put a stop to hundreds of town homes that developers want to build on the site of Bowie’s Freeway Airport — will be heard by Maryland’s Supreme Court next month.

In the meantime, the council moved ahead with legislation that revokes the zoning change for the land and could render those upcoming arguments moot. The only arguments against that particular bill came from those affiliated with the project.

“It’s a really chilling message you’re sending out there,” said Andrew Roud, who is with St. John’s Properties. “You go through, you do everything that’s required, four years later we go back in a ‘Doctor Who’ time machine and undo it.”

He said any legislative action shouldn’t impact anything that was already approved, and should instead start at the beginning of 2023, “so people like myself and other investors can say ‘You know what, we’ve observed what your program is and we’re choosing not to develop in the county. We’ll invest somewhere else.’ But this is not correct.”

Similar comments were made by Angie Rogers, speaking on behalf of the county executive’s office as the deputy chief administrative officer for economic development. She frequently argued against bills that were ultimately passed anyway.

“To revisit matters that have been settled … it undermines the confidence that those businesses have for any investments they want to make in the future,” said Rogers.

Residents who spoke during the meeting were largely in favor of the council’s actions.

“These developers gain so much from the county without feeling the negative impacts inflicted upon the residents,” said Patrice Murray, of Bowie.

Miller Einsel said he wasn’t buying concerns that developers would stop working to build in the county.

“Prince George’s County is a premier county in Maryland. It sits next to Washington, D.C., it has the Beltway running right through it,” said Einsel. “If this legislation is passed, developers will just adjust. When legislation is passed, people adjust. And that can happen and will happen here.”

Other legislation that was rescinded focused on bills that were deemed “site specific;” allowed for land zoned for one use to be used for something different; or allowed property owners to skirt certain rules and requirements.

In some cases, the council acknowledged it would have to work with businesses and the county government to provide remedial solutions. But in a letter written earlier this month to County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, Council Chair Tom Dernoga dismissed concerns about “stability” from the business community.

“Naturally, the development community wants stability,” wrote Dernoga. But, he argued, “The public also expects stability. Stealth rezoning through vague amendments to the Zoning Ordinance are unfair and create instability for communities.”

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, he noted “there’s nothing preventing a legislative body from repealing bills from prior sessions, and that’s all we’re doing,” said Dernoga. “In terms of revisiting and casting a pall on the county in terms of climate, well that’s what citizens have been complaining about as long as I can remember. The rules change on them all the time.”

He wrapped up saying, “hopefully we’re at a point where we’re done with the repeals.”

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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