Photo by Mark Strozier on Flickr.

Approvals for many long-ago approved but unbuilt subdivisions in Prince George’s County will expire at the end of the year. But for the fifth year in a row, the County Council may decide to extend those approvals for another year. It may be time to stop.

Today, the council’s Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee will consider three bills, CB-70-2013, CB-71-2013, and CB-75-2013, that would toll all deadlines for preliminary subdivision, site plan, and design plan approvals. Development plans approved as far back as January 2003 would remain valid through December 31, 2014.

By law, approvals for subdivision plans or site plans are only valid for 2 or 3 years, but some can last for up to 6 years. The County Council began granting extensions in 2009 to give developers flexibility during the economic downturn and prevent developments from being abandoned. But as the housing market steadily rebounds, recent analysis from county planners suggests it might be good to let some of these projects expire.

Prince George’s doesn’t need additional sprawl housing

Nearly 80 percent of the existing approved residential development in the county consists of low-density, single-family residences located outside the Beltway, far away from transit. County planners warn that this level of sprawl development damages the county’s overall transit-oriented development goals and puts the county at a distinct disadvantage for attracting new residents in the future.

Pipeline Development as of December 2011. Image by M-NCPPC.

First, this type of scattered development makes it hard to create high-density development around Metro stations, as the county’s General Plan envisions. Second, the construction of additional suburban single-family housing units does not help the county to meet future market demand for new housing.

Relying on two separate studies of housing demand conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) and George Mason University, county planners expect that Prince George’s will need to add up to 52,000 new housing units over the next 20 years. However, to meet the forecasted demand, more than 60% of these units (more than 31,200 units) will need to be multifamily units located in compact, walkable communities near transit. That means the county will only need about 20,800 new single-family units over the next two decades.

In Where and How We Grow, a recently-released policy paper, county planners warn that “without a recalibration of county priorities and policies that promote TOD and high-quality, mixed-use development, it is likely that the county will be at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide.”

Letting the validity periods expire may be best

So what should the county do with its current development pipeline? According to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), as of December 2011, there were 14,991 approved single-family housing units in the pipeline.

That accounts for nearly 70% of the projected future need for single-family housing in the county over the next 20 years. 88% percent of those approved housing units, or 13,247 units, were located outside of the Beltway, away from transit. Only 7%, or 1,105 units, were located inside of the Beltway.

I couldn’t find any figures from M-NCPPC that detail how many of the pipeline units remained valid only as a result of the various extension bills passed by the council since 2009. However, it’s safe to assume that a significant portion of those projects were approved earlier, since there were fewer development projects moving forward in the height of the Great Recession.

The county’s land use policies have changed significantly since 2009. New subregional master plans and/or area master plans are in place for almost all significantly populated areas in the county. Additionally, the county has adopted stronger stormwater management standards and complete streets policies. And the county is currently revamping its General Plan. Many of the older single-family developments in the pipeline are not in line with these new and forthcoming land use policies.

By simply taking no further action to extend the validity periods on preliminary subdivision plans, site plans, and design plans, the County Council could significantly reduce the backlog of pipeline development. This is a step that M-NCPPC believes would serve the county well. In addition to helping slow down suburban sprawl, such a move would also allow previously proposed-but-unbuilt developments to be reevaluated under current land use policies.

If you believe the county should not take further action to validate sprawl, please take a moment to urge the PZED Committee to table CB-70, CB-71, and CB-75. You can email your comments to PZED Chair Mel Franklin, with copies to committee director Jackie Brown and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone.

(A version of this post appeared on Prince George’s Urbanist on October 1, 2013.)

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.