Largo Town Center. Photo by the author.
Prince George’s County has diverged from its smart growth goals, says the county Planning Board in a searing assessment. The board says residents have a choice: push for more transit-oriented development and walkable communities, or “be resigned to business as usual.”
The board released a policy paper called How and Where We Grow as part of an update of the county’s 20-year plan for growth and development. It offers aggressive proposals to tame sprawling, scattered development and focus public resources at Metro stations and priority urban centers.
While official plans and rhetoric say transit-oriented development is important, land use trends show a different story on the ground. The county must recommit to managing its growth in a sustainable way by preserving open space and focusing development around Metro stations, says the board. Otherwise, the county will remain a place known for bedroom communities, underutilized Metro stations, and weak job growth.
Members of the public can offer their input on the county’s future at a day-long town meeting next month.
Prince George’s is at a crossroads
"Prince George’s County is at a crossroads,” the Planning Board states. “Will we choose bold action or business as usual?”
The document recounts how the 2002 General Plan vision for growth and land use fell short of its original goals over the years. Without commitment to a new direction, the county can expect more spread out development, continued failure to capitalize on the promise of transit-oriented development, and lagging investment to spark revitalization of communities inside the Beltway.
Between 2002 and 2010, residential growth in the county departed from the General Plan by spreading out into over 6,400 acres of the “Developing Tier,” a rapidly suburbanizing area outside the Beltway. The lion’s share of the county’s development occurred there, including 73% of residential and 60% of commercial growth.
In the “Developed Tier,” inside the Beltway, growth lagged. It fell short of goals by capturing 25% rather the hoped-for 33% goal. However, what was built there consumed just 5% of the county’s land area.
Development in the pipeline, which has been approved but not yet built, promises more of the same. More than 79% of residential units in the development pipeline are single-family detached houses in the Developing Tier. Yet according to the Planning Board, demand forecasts show that more than 60% of the new housing units to be built should be multifamily units located in walkable communities at transit-accessible locations.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
How and Where We Grow points to the costs of these growth patterns: spread-out development at densities that are difficult to support with quality transit or retail services, long commutes, and a future as a bedroom community to the region. Over the past 40 years, a third of the county’s open space, agricultural, and forested land were converted to low-density residential development. The loss of open space has fragmented natural areas and undermined the agricultural economy.
Furthermore, the board notes that the county has attracted the fewest number of new residents of an area jurisdiction from 2000 to 2010. “Without recalibration of county priorities and policies that promote TOD [transit-oriented development] and high-quality, mixed-use development,” the paper says, “it is likely that the county will be at a continued disadvantage to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide.”
The county needs a unified vision
The board notes that the structure of county government undermines unity and fosters internal competition through the lack of at-large council members on the county council. “While the County Executive can focus and coordinate resources, the nine different Council members, oftentimes with nine different priorities, it is difficult to agree upon a single vision for the county,” says the paper. “In practice this means that public dollars get spread across the county, instead of being concentrated in a few places to make a truly significant impact.”
A “clear mismatch in stated goals and actual infrastructure investment” emerges when assessing the county’s transportation spending priorities, the board finds. There’s also far more commercial and mixed-use zoning than the market can support. The paper notes that the county’s weak commercial tax base makes it a challenge to compete for employers or have the financial resources to address community needs, like crime and poor schools.
Given these tough observations, the planners put forth a realistic agenda for the future with this set of specific recommendations aimed at leveraging existing infrastructure:
- Define density targets and growth goals for the tiers to shift the focus of development to the centers and the Developed Tier.
- Make a stronger commitment by targeting new growth to the Developed Tier and increase the growth objectives for the tier.
- Locate the new hospital center and key government functions at a transit-oriented development location.
- Reduce the backlog pipeline development (which can linger for decades). Prioritize and phase development by requiring bonding for infrastructure improvements. Also use the water and sewer process to more aggressively discourage greenfield development.
- Prioritize and fast track building permits in targeted areas (County Council is currently advancing a bill to do this).
- Revise surcharge fees for schools and public safety, encourage development in the Centers and Developed Tier by reducing fees, and phase growth in the Developing Tier through fee increases.
- Adopt new zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations. Ensure they are supportive of the General Plan goals, including encouraging transit-oriented development.
The planning board’s honest, stern assessment of the county’s challenges and practical list of reforms offer the chance for Prince George’s County to change its ways. County leadership has shown some appetite for meaningful reforms. At the request of the county council and executive, the state delegation enabled the county to reduce fees for developments around Metro stations during the last Maryland legislative session.
The County Council is also advancing a bill to expedite development review for projects close to Metro stations. Meanwhile, the debate over where to locate the proposed Regional Medical Center has shifted away from expansive open sites to parcels around the Largo Town Center Metro station.
However, the county’s spending priorities still reflect business as usual, with a focus on building costly intersections for new communities like National Harbor and Konterra instead of investments to enhance access to transit stations or improve bus service. Expensive sprawl-supporting highway projects remain high on the county’s wish list for state funding, such as roads to support the 6,000-acre greenfield Westphalia development located outside the Capital Beltway and miles from the nearest Metro station.
Despite the mixed and sometimes contradictory priorities pursued by the county, the Planning Board and staff are making waves by pointing out the costs of continuing old ways that will allow the county to fall further behind.