Council member Mel Franklin (D-Dist. 9). Photo by Prince George’s County.

Prince George’s County Councilmember Mel Franklin is still trying to exempt most development projects within a half-mile of transit stations from public meetings and site plan review.  Unfortunately, his second hurried attempt at the legislation does not fix the problems which sparked outcry from community and smart growth activists.

Franklin is placing his revised bill (PDF), CB-79, on the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee agenda for October 17 and is seeking public comment on the bill. 

Jim Titus and I discussed the original version of CB-79, and recommended a better way to promote urban-form transit-oriented development (TOD) and preserve public participation. We suggested relying upon the county’s existing form-based development code, called Subtitle 27A.

Councilmember Franklin has been one of the more vocal proponents of smart growth and TOD since joining the Council in 2010.  He pointedly shunned developer contributions to his campaign when he ran for his council seat, and he actively advocated for more government accountability and “putting the ‘public’ back in public meetings.”

Therefore, many community activists and smart growth supporters were caught off guard by Franklin’s rushed efforts to spearhead CB-79 and a companion bill, CB-80, which would exempt transit station area development from the traffic analysis that often requires widening roads around a development.

Franklin (District 9) has two co-sponsors for these bills, Derrick Leon Davis (District 6) and Council chair Andrea Harrison (District 5).

Timing of CB-79 raises transparency and good government concerns

Franklin presented CB-79 and CB-80 with little fanfare on September 25. He originally scheduled both bills for a quick hearing before the PZED Committee, which he chairs, on October 3. However, after receiving a barrage of public opposition, Franklin pulled the bills from the agenda on October 2 and promised to revise them.

In an email sent to concerned parties on October 6, Franklin circulated a proposed second draft of CB-79, and said that CB-80 “ha[d] been pulled for this year and is being substantially revised for consideration next year.” 

Franklin is placing CB-79 on the PZED agenda on October 17, presumably so it can clear the committee process in time to be introduced as expedited legislation on October 23.  That’s the last possible date in the 2012 legislative session to introduce zoning bills.  Only two more regular legislative days remain in the 2012 session after then: November 6 (Election Day) and November 20.

Franklin’s stated goal in introducing CB-79 is to streamline the development review process, thereby making it more attractive to the private sector and luring developers away from sprawl and toward transit. But many community and smart growth activists believe the legislation would encourage shoddy, suburban-style, non-pedestrian- and non-transit-oriented development.

Additionally, many community members have expressed concern that CB-79 is reminiscent of the same type of non-transparent, developer-friendly legislation that has fostered an ethically troublesome pay-to-play development culture in the county. A federal corruption investigation sent the previous county executive, Jack Johnson, his wife, former councilmember Leslie Johnson, and several other county officials and developers to prison in recent years.

In an open email to Franklin on October 2, former councilmember and chair Tom Dernoga excoriated the way the current PZED chair was proceeding with these bills. He wrote:

You “may” have a point about the [need to change the] status quo. However, the manner in which you are handling this is mind-bogging [sic], and raises serious questions in the mind of the public whether land use ethics have been cleaned up from the days of Jack Johnson and his predecessors. ...

Who drafted these bills? What non-County government interests participated in the analysis, drafting and review? I hate to be pointed, but the substance of the bills, combined with the process to this point, make these questions obvious. Any valid policy bases are obscured by the manner in which they are being pursued.


Substantively, Franklin’s proposed second draft of the bill cures few, if any, of the problems with the initial version.  Indeed, the new draft creates additional complications.

CB-79’s “opt-in” language provides little protection to wary communities

The proposed second draft of CB-79 introduces, but does not define, a new term: “expedited transit oriented development.” The bill states that areas within a half-mile of Metro or MTA transit stations may be designated for such development in a comprehensive plan adopted and approved by the Council after January 1, 2013.  Such plans could include a master plan, sector plan, sectional map amendment, zoning map amendment, or overlay zone.

The purpose of these changes, according to Franklin, is to emphasize that a transit station area can only be exempted from traditional site plan review by “opting in” during a future comprehensive planning process that requires notice and a public hearing.

Despite Franklin’s emphasis, however, the Council would still be able to designate an area for “expedited transit oriented development” at the tail end of the comprehensive planning process managed by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC). 

The Council could overrule the Commission and designate such areas, even the community and M-NCPPC specifically opposed such a designation.  Historically, such last-minute controversial Council amendments have been commonplace, and they usually favor developer interests.

CB-79 adopts Subtitle 27A language but limits form-based zoning, accountability, and transparency

In our earlier post, we recommended using the County’s existing Subtitle 27A process to achieve Franklin’s stated goals for CB-79.  The new draft of CB-79 now includes some elements of the Subtitle 27A process within its text.  While this may seem like a good idea at first blush, it actually introduces new and unhelpful complications.

The new draft attempts to graft large portions of Subtitle 27A, the form-based Urban Centers and Corridor Nodes Development and Zoning Code, onto this new and undefined “expedited transit oriented development” process.  Specifically, CB-79 would require all expedited TODs to adhere to the use restrictions and to the building envelope, urban space, recreation, architectural, and parking-and-loading standards of Subtitle 27A.

Unfortunately, CB-79 conspicuously leaves out Subtitle 27A’s most important portions: the “regulating plan” and the administrative procedures for permits.

The regulating plan sets out the shapes of buildings, setbacks, street types, and more for each type of the station area. M-NCPPC, the public, and the Council create the regulating plan through a collaborative and comprehensive public planning process. Without a regulating plan, CB-79 would end up applying building envelope and urban space standards in a vacuum.

The administrative procedures provide for advance public notice and appeal rights, which are essential accountability tools that keep public officials and developers honest, while still permitting a streamlined permitting procedure. By doing away with this, CB-79 would upset the proper balance between speed and accountability. And it would do so in precisely the non-transparent way that candidate Mel Franklin argued against during his run for public office.

CB-79 would end up limiting the public’s ability to participate in the review of essential and profitable development projects.  That’s a dangerous move for a county with such a torrid (and recent) history of developer and public official corruption.

Subtitle 27A provides more accountability and less chance for mischief than CB-79

Councilmember Franklin has stated that CB-79 will strongly incentivize private sector investment in the redevelopment of the county’s long-neglected station areas by shortening and creating more certainly in the development process.  But the reality is, the county already has legislation that accomplishes those worthy goals in a much better reasoned and sensible way.  It’s called Subtitle 27A.


Addison Road Metro Station. Photo by the author.

 

Form-based zoning under Subtitle 27A was developed by the professional planning staff of the M-NCPPC, with the assistance of three reputable outside consulting firms over the course of multiple years, at significant expense to the county and M-NCPPC.  It has been available to the County Council for more than 2 years.  Yet this Council has taken no action to develop regulating plans for any of the county’s 15 Metro station areas. 

In 2011, M-NCPPC began a series of public meetings designed to educate the public about TOD plans for the Blue Line Corridor in the central portion of the county, along Central Avenue (MD-214). The eventual goal of that process is to facilitate implementing Subtitle 27A at the 4 Metro station areas along that corridor (Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Morgan Boulevard, and Largo Town Center). 

Before concluding that additional legislation such as CB-79 is needed to properly spur development at Metro stations, shouldn’t the county at least implement and then properly evaluate Subtitle 27A?

In a future post, I will explore other ideas that will help to incentivize urban TOD in Prince George’s County.  For now, though, please take council member Franklin up on his invitation to submit additional public comments on CB-79.  You may do so by emailing the Clerk of Council at clerkofthecouncil@co.pg.md.us, with a copy to Franklin at mfraklin@co.pg.md.us.  It’s also a good idea to send your comments to your own council member, if you are a county resident.