Photo by MDGovpics on Flickr.

Five months ago, public outcry persuaded Prince George’s councilmember Mel Franklin to pull two controversial fast-tracked bills to exempt Metro station developments from site plan review and public meetings. On Wednesday, the council will consider two new, and better, bills.

Both bills would streamline the development review process near Metro stations. CB-6-2013, spearheaded by Councilmember Eric Olson (District 3), would apply to proposed developments either in a Transit District Overlay Zone (TDOZ) or within ¼ mile of a Metro station. 

CB-12-2013, advanced by Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) chair Franklin (District 9), would apply to proposed developments within &frac12 mile of a Metro station or a constructed MARC or Purple Line station. The council will consider both bills at a special evening meeting of the PZED committee this Wednesday evening, March 13, at 6 pm.

Both bills appear to have broad support among the council members, although they appear to address the same topic in meaningfully different ways. Eight of the nine council members have signed on to Olson’s bill.  Councilmember Mary Lehman (District 1) has not yet expressed her support for CB-6. Six of the nine council members have signed on to Franklin’s bill. The three who have thus far declined to support CB-12 are Olson, Lehman, and Obie Patterson (District 8).

Unlike the case with Franklin’s TOD bills during the 2012 legislative session, these two bills are coming earlier in the session and do not (yet) appear to be on a fast track. Instead, these bills seem to be proceeding at a normal pace through the typical three-step process for passing legislation in Prince George’s County:

  1. the first reading (or “presentation”) of a bill, where a bill is assigned to a committee for further hearings;
  2. the second reading (or “introduction”), when the amended bill comes out of committee; and
  3. the third reading, after which the committee’s bill is debated, perhaps further amended by the full council, and then either put to a vote or referred back to a committee.

CB-6 and CB-12 are both at the initial stage of the process (presentation), so there still should be time for the public to provide meaningful input into the process.

CB-6: Simple and straightforward streamlining—but needs tweaks

The primary goal of CB-6 appears to be the elimination of costly, time consuming, and duplicative development review procedures that apply to certain zones currently in use around Metro stations. In some zones, such as the Mixed-Use Transportation-Oriented (MXT) Zone around the New Carrollton Metro Station, developers have to submit and obtain approval for both a conceptual site plan (CSP) and a detailed site plan (DSP) before building permits can be issued.

In theory, the CSP is supposed to be more preliminary in nature and general in substance than the DSP. For phased projects, the CSP is supposed to outline all of the various proposed stages that a developer anticipates. As a practical matter, though, the CSP and DSP are often extremely duplicative of each other—particularly for development projects that are proposed in only one phase.

And because the CSP and DSP both call for full public adjudicatory hearings before the Prince George’s County Planning Board of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), with all the attendant rights of administrative appeal and review before the District (County) Council and judicial review by the courts, it can take an incredibly long time for developments to get approved.

This, in turn, can create a disincentive for developers seeking to build around Metro stations.  After all, time is money—and wasted time is…well, you get the picture.

CB-6 would alleviate some of this burden by dispensing with the CSP process for “TOD priority projects.” Eligible projects would go through only one round of DSP hearings before the Planning Board. The legislation also calls for other agencies, such as the Department of Public Works and Transportation, to expedite TOD priority projects around Metro stations.

The public would have the same full panoply of rights to advance notice and a public adjudicatory hearing that they currently have with respect to DSPs now. Items or issues that would ordinarily be discussed in a CSP (such as overall phasing plans) would be wrapped into the DSP. 

CB-6’s targeted streamlining approach is generally a good thing. However, the bill needs slight tweaks to ensure that adequate urban design standards are in place to require the type of compact, walkable mixed-use development that should exist in a transit zone. In particular:

  • The bill should apply only at Metro stations where a recent sector or area plan has prescribed specific, form-based building envelope and site standards, along with other architectural and open-space standards applicable to urban areas. Without these standards, the bill’s directive that TOD priority projects should “use the best urban design practices” has no real teeth. Generally, any Metro station area plan that was enacted after January 2008 should incorporate these types of standards.
  • The bill should apply not only in Transit District Overlay Zones, but also in Development District Overlay Zones, Comprehensive Design Zones, and Mixed-Use Zones. Given the clunky and non-user-friendly way that the Prince George’s Zoning Code has developed over the years, there are multiple types of zones that currently exist around the county’s 15 Metro stations. This legislation should reach all of these different zoning types currently in use. (The county’s form-based Urban Centers and Corridor Nodes Development Code, approved in 2010 and also known as Subtitle 27A, has its own set of expedited development review procedures and should not be covered by CB-6. Currently, however, no Metro station area is covered by Subtitle 27A.)

CB-12: Better than last year’s bill, but still problematic

It’s clear, from reading CB-12-2013, that Councilmember Franklin has made some attempt to respond to some of the public comments in opposition to last year’s bill, CB-79-2012.

For example, similar to Olson’s bill (CB-6), CB-12 would require only a Detailed Site Plan review for “expedited TOD projects” constructed within &frac12 mile of a Metro, MARC, or Purple Line station. (Franklin includes MARC and Purple Line stations that exist at the time the development proposal is submitted.)  Additionally, contrary to last year’s bill, CB-12 would incorporate a public comment process into the expedited DSP review.

The problem is that CB-12’s expedited DSP review process would not facilitate meaningful and informed public participation. Additionally, elimination of an interested party’s right to a public adjudicatory hearing before the Planning Board in connection with proposed development projects is likely contrary to state law.

Under CB-12, a developer proposing an expedited TOD project would file an application with the Planning Director (not the Planning Board). The Planning Director or a staff member designee would schedule a “pre-application conference” with the developer, at which time members of the public could appear, hear a presentation from the developer, and offer oral or written comments on the “preliminary project plan” filed by the developer.

The preliminary project plan would be made available to the public via M-NCPPC’s website, but only seven days after the scheduled pre-application conference. If you want to see it before the conference, the only option appears to be making a trek out to the Planning Department Office in Upper Marlboro, the county seat.

Nothing about the preliminary project plan is binding on the developer or M-NCPPC. The actual Detailed Site Plan filed by the developer could differ dramatically from the preliminary project plan discussed at the pre-application conference. M-NCPPC staff would post the actual DSP application on a website and accept additional written comments, but would hold no further in-person conferences with the public. Nor would there be any opportunity provided for a formal adjudicatory hearing before the Planning Board.

Within 20-50 days, the Planning Director or a staff member designee would prepare a staff report and final recommendation and file it directly with the District Council. Within the next 25 days, the Council could elect to review the recommendation, or an interested party could file an “appeal” of the Planning Director’s recommendation with the District Council. (The word “appeal” is somewhat of a misnomer in this context, since there was never a hearing before M-NCPPC to begin with.)

If an appeal or review is filed, a hearing before the District Council would be scheduled within 30 days, and a final decision would be issued within 15 days thereafter.  Barring any appeal or review, the Planning Director’s recommendations would become the final decision of the District Council within 25 days after they are filed with the District Council.

Prince George’s Planning Board. Photo by M-NCPPC

The above procedure eliminates altogether the involvement of the Planning Board in evaluating DSPs relating to expedited TOD projects.  It also eliminates the public’s right to a formal adjudicatory hearing before the Planning Board relating to the DSP—including the right to cross-examine the developer’s witnesses under oath, introduce evidence of one’s own, and have a decision rendered on the basis of the record developed at the hearing. Although that certainly speeds up the development review process and otherwise makes things easier for developers, it’s also quite likely unlawful.

Under a 2012 amendment by the Maryland General Assembly to the Regional District Act (the state law that establishes the M-NCPPC as a bi-county commission covering Prince George’s and Montgomery counties), Prince George’s County is prohibited from withdrawing its previously-delegated authority to M-NCPPC to decide DSPs unless it is doing so for purposes of re-delegating that same authority to a municipality within the county. Because CB-12 seeks to withdraw the Planning Board’s authority to hear and decide DSP cases in the first instance, it probably runs afoul of state law.

Show up at Wednesday’s meeting if you can

Whatever your feelings about CB-6 or CB-12, the County Council needs to hear your voice.  All too often in Prince George’s County, legislative committee meetings are held during normal business hours, thereby depriving most working-age citizens of the opportunity to participate. The result is that those meetings are typically filled with developers, county planning professionals, and occasionally retirees—hardly a representative sample of the community.

This time, however, PZED chair Mel Franklin has made good on his promise to hold an evening meeting on these bills, given the high public interest in the issue of Metro station transit-oriented development. Let’s honor Councilmember Franklin’s decision by turning out in great numbers this Wednesday, March 13, 6 pm, in Room 2027 of the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, MD.

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.