TOD in San Francisco. Image by LA Wad on Flickr.

Some Prince George’s County Council members want to make it easier to develop around the county’s transit stations with a pair of bills that would streamline approvals. But communities and smart growth advocates fear the bills would just encourage more of the unwalkable development that has been all too common near the county’s Metro stations in the past.

Council members Mel Franklin (District 9), Derrick Leon Davis (District 6) and Council Chair Andrea Harrison (District 5) introduced the two bills, CB-79 and CB-80, which would exempt projects within a half-mile of Metro, MTA and planned Purple Line stations from the county’s site plan review process and traffic tests.

In a recent Examiner article, Franklin lauded these two bills because they would make it “quicker and less expensive” for developers to build in station areas. In a recent email, Franklin wrote,

The goals of the bills [are] ... to make the process more streamlined and thus extremely attractive to bring private investment to redevelop the County’s 15 metro rail (and future MTA rail) stations and encourage smarter, more sustainable growth.  Currently, the direction of the private sector is to pursue more sprawl pattern development in our County for the foreseeable future. 

Well-intentioned and endless talk about TOD will not make it happen.  Policies that actually stimulate market forces and private investment towards transit oriented development are necessary to attract development to more established areas of the County that have been ignored for decades.

In an action alert, the Coalition for Smarter Growth said it agrees that the deregulation proposed by the two bills would likely spur development around transit station areas.  But it also believes that the rules would encourage shoddy, suburban-style, non-pedestrian- and non-transit-oriented development.

"Right now, it’s more difficult to develop near a transit station than far away from one. That’s a problem, but these bills are the wrong way to solve that problem,” the action alert reads.

Former council member Tom Dernoga, meanwhile, criticized the rapid process. “Blind-siding the public (and apparently some of your colleagues) with a late-filed bill is not going to advance important land-use issues in a manner that the public will accept. At a minimum, a study group should address the underlying issue,” he wrote in an email to Franklin which Greater Greater Washington has obtained. “Any valid policy bases are obscured by the manner in which they are being pursued.”

The bills were originally scheduled for a “fast track” markup session at today’s Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee meeting, chaired by Franklin. In response to rapid public criticism, Franklin pulled the bills from the agenda and promised to revise them.

Scott Peterson, spokesperson for County Executive Rushern Baker, stated that the county executive is still reviewing the bills and had not yet developed a position on them.

The existing form-based code shows an alternative to CB-79

CB-79 would exempt projects built near transit stations from the county’s detailed site plan, conceptual site plan, and comprehensive design plan review processes, and allow them to skip directly to the permitting phase. Besides giving residents a voice, these development review processes are also the main way that elected officials and planning departments of the various cities and towns weigh in on new development projects. Laurel is the only municipality that is able to control its own zoning.

Exempting transit station area development projects from public hearings before the county’s Planning Board may also violate state law, specifically the Regional District Act. This act sets up a public hearing process before the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) and then the council. CB-79’s exemption of certain development projects from this process could therefore be an unlawful end-run around state-sanctioned public processes.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative already ready to go. More than 2½ years ago, the county created a form-based code called Subtitle 27A. One of its specified purposes, according to M-NCPPC, was “to streamline and standardize regulations and processes, and [incentivize] development in and around the county’s most important transit resources.”

Subtitle 27A would apply only in Metro station areas and other urbanized areas designated by the county’s general plan as “centers” and “corridors.” M-NCPPC, the community, and the County Council would develop a “regulating plan” for each station area through a public process.

That plan sets clear rules for the types of buildings and their form in particular blocks. It defines the height and scale of buildings, where they can be placed in relation to the street, the portion of a lot that can be built on, the types of building materials that can be used, etc. The plan also details the streetscape specifications for every street in the area—everything from roadway, lane, and sidewalk width to planting requirements for street trees.

Once a regulating plan is in place for a particular station area, there is little need for an extensive development review process, since developers and the community all know the rules ahead of time. Accordingly, under Subtitle 27A, development plans move directly to the permitting process.

M-NCPPC reviews the plans to be sure they conform with the regulating plan, and if they comply, the project gets its permit, subject to any appeals. M-NCPPC has the authority to make limited adjustments to particular regulating plan standards, but no other adjustments are permitted unless the regulating plan itself is amended through a public comprehensive planning process.

Thus, the form-based zoning regulations in Subtitle 27A accomplish the goals of CB-79, while still ensuring quality urban-form TOD in transit station areas and preserving the public’s right to a fair hearing. Unfortunately, however, the county has yet to begin the public planning process to implement Subtitle 27A in any of the county’s urban centers and corridor areas, including Metro and MARC station areas.

Problematic traffic tests could disappear or become more multi-modal

Under existing subdivision rules, a developer must conduct a traffic study to determine whether the existing roads can handle increased automobile traffic from the development. If not, the developer must pay for road improvements, such as new lanes or traffic signals, and/or wait for government agencies to build them before proceeding.

Any mixed-use development with housing, shopping, and employment centers would generate more auto trips in the immediate vicinity. Under the current rules, developers would therefore have to pay for more road infrastructure. Not only does this increase the cost of development, but the increased road capacity could also ironically make the neighborhood more hostile to pedestrians and bicyclists, thereby hindering further transit-oriented development. 

These traffic analyses do not account for the automobile trips that are saved by locating dense mixed-used developments near transit centers. Often the trips it decreases are elsewhere in the county, because residents who live in mixed-use developments typically live closer to work, shopping, and other destinations, and are therefore able to walk, bike, or take public transit for many routine trips.

CB-80 would exempt all projects near transit stations from current rules requiring traffic studies and increased road capacity. This might make higher-density mixed-use TOD easier to build. Right now, strip malls that bring off-peak traffic have an easier time passing the traffic tests than mixed-use residential or commercial. Therefore, without the rules, developers could propose more walkable, transit-oriented projects that they don’t think could gain approval today.

On the other hand, many worry that developers would simply build suburban-style, single-use, automobile-oriented development instead. That is what they are most accustomed to building in Prince George’s, and surrounding areas are still primarily car-dependent. Without the traffic tests, a project like garden apartments could bring many auto trips to a transit station area, frustrating future development of urban, walkable communities.

Land near some stations like New Carrollton may be too valuable for this to happen, but at many other stations it is more likely. Plus, exempting everything within a half-mile could mean a project 0.45 miles from a station, even across a freeway, would face no traffic tests even if the intervening space is not very walkable.

Apart from the question of the type of development, many people who live near transit facilities would tolerate some increase in traffic, but only if transportation capacity increased.  Because the existing rules always encourage more roads, CB-80 seems to imply that the choice is either more roads or no increase in capacity.

But there is another possibility:  the county could create traffic generation standards that factor in all of the transportation methods typically associated with TODs. The Transportation Research Board has created comprehensive guidance on how to develop a multi-modal level of service (LOS) analysis tool. These standards would ensure that the right transportation facilities such as bike lanes, wide sidewalks, crosswalks, and pedestrian signals are in place to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips.

It’s great that County Council members want to encourage smart growth around transit stations. However, abandoning all development review and regulation in urban areas is not likely to result in compact, walkable mixed-used TOD. Instead of fast-tracking these bills, the council should take the time necessary to engage in a dialogue with all stakeholders on these important issues.

Bradley Heard is an attorney and citizen activist who resides in the Capitol Heights area of Prince George’s County. A native of Virginia Beach and former longtime Atlanta resident, Brad hopes to encourage high-quality, walkable and bikeable development in the inner Beltway region of Prince George’s County.

Jim Titus lived aboard a 75-foot coast guard cutter at Buzzards Point boatyard in southwest Washington until he was 2. Since then he has lived in Prince George’s County, going to school in Ft. Washington, Accokeek, and College Park before moving to Glenn Dale. He represents Prince George’s on the state of Maryland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and is on the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Professionally, he works for a federal agency, which asks not to be identified.