Photo by FadderUri on Flickr.

Prince George’s County has a backlog of approved, but unbuilt sprawl developments that will soon expire. Planners recommended cutting that backlog, because homebuyers increasingly prefer more compact types of housing near transit. But a council committee recommended letting the sprawl get built anyway.

80% of the approved residential development in Prince George’s pipeline consists of low-density single-family homes outside of the Beltway and far from transit. Project approvals normally expire after 3 years, but lawmakers extended these validity periods several times during the housing bust. Last week, the council’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development (PZED) committee recommended moving these deadlines back for another two years.

County planners warn that this is the wrong type of development, in the wrong place, and that it puts the county “at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors.” They urged lawmakers to recalibrate county development priorities to focus on compact, mixed-use development near transit. Sadly, county council members weren’t listening.

Developers lobby for more time to build

As originally drafted, bills CB-70 and CB-71 would have granted only a one-year extension to unbuilt projects approved as far back as January 2003. But the bills’ sponsor, Councilmember Derrick Leon Davis, whose district includes suburbanizing communities like Westphalia, moved to amend the bills to grant a two-year extension to those projects, making them valid until December 31, 2015.

While the Coalition for Smarter Growth and I submitted written comments in opposition to the bills, it’s likely that Davis was responding to the parade of developers’ representatives who showed up to last week’s PZED committee meeting to testify in favor of the bills. According to the committee minutes, seven developer attorneys testified, including Thomas Haller, Larry Taub, Norman Rivera, Ed Gibbs, André Gingles, Mike Nagy, and Chris Hatcher. Two lobbyists from the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, Marcus Jackson and Kenneth Dunn, testified as well.

Gingles, one of the attorneys, raised eyebrows this past December by suggesting that council member Eric Olson, who was in line to become the next council chair, was “too Arlington” for Prince George’s County. And one of the lobbyists, Marcus Jackson, was a longtime legislative liaison for disgraced former county executive Jack Johnson, as well as a former policy analyst to District 8 council member Obie Patterson.

Ultimately, 4 of the 5 PZED committee members voted in favor of Davis’s amended bills: committee chair Mel Franklin (District 9), vice chair Karen Toles (District 7), council chair Andrea Harrison (District 5), and council vice chair Obie Patterson (District 8). The committee’s lone dissenting vote was from council member Eric Olson (District 3), who expressed concern that the legislation did not provide any incentive for developers to move forward with their projects.

Alternative bill would place requirements on extension

Olson proposed an alternative bill, CB-75, which would grant an extension of not more than 6 months to any dormant project that applies for and obtains required grading or building permits prior to the expiration of the existing validity period. The 6-month period would run from the date the building or grading permit is issued. The PZED Committee voted unanimously to forward this bill to the full council.

As currently drafted, Olson’s bill does not have a sunset provision. Instead, it sets up a new procedure where developers could obtain an automatic 6-month extension of site plan validity periods for any project that is able to obtain a building or grading period prior to the expiration of its then-current validity period. Olson believes this new procedure will properly incentivize serious developers to keep their projects on schedule.

Prince George’s needs sustainable development, not sprawl

Although there are nearly 15,000 approved suburban single-family homes in the pipeline, studies show that future homebuyers will be increasingly disinclined to buy them. Data from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and George Mason University suggests that to meet future market demand, upwards of 60% (or 31,200) of the 52,000 new homes Prince George’s will need in the next 20 years should be multi-family homes.

CB-70, the bill that would extend the approvals for unbuilt subdivisions through 2015, will be introduced to the full council during their October 8 legislative session. It’s unclear when the other bills will be introduced, as these do not (yet) appear on the agenda.

According to the council’s standard legislative process, once a bill is introduced, a public hearing before the full council is scheduled to occur “not earlier than 14 days after introduction.” Therefore, there is still time to let the council know what you think about these bills.

You should direct any written comments to the Clerk of the Council, and copy the individual council members, whose email addresses you may find in the Maryland Manual. You may also make limited oral public comments at the hearing.

The recent housing crisis is not the main reason why many of these approved suburban single-family sprawl developments have gone unbuilt for 10 years. There’s simply less demand for the product these days. Instead of simply giving them the green light, county leaders would do well to rethink these projects and take advantage of the plentiful opportunities to build in established neighborhoods and around its 15 Metro stations.

A version of this post appeared in Prince George’s Urbanist.