Image by Jordan Barab used with permission.

Friday, December 15 is the last day the public can send in comments on the newly proposed new zoning ordinance for Prince George’s County. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but also one really suspicious thing. Here’s a rundown of what you should know!

Here’s why the county needs to update its zoning ordinance

Prince George’s zoning code is really long and pretty old. When it was written in the 1950s, it had in mind a mostly rural and suburban county, and its rules reflect that. Of course today Prince George’s County has a variety of areas, some urban and others rural. It also has better transit options, including a number of Metro stations throughout it.

As time went on, planners added and amended bits and pieces to the zoning ordinance to adapt to the changing county, but unfortunately that left a large, complicated code that does not best serve the Prince George’s County of today. So planners have undertaken the task of simplifying the code and rewriting it. The current draft has been open to public comment for months, and that period of public comment closes today.

There’s a lot urbanists should get excited about in here, so let’s take a look at a few highlights.

The county could stop requiring so much parking

Prince George’s County, not unlike many other jurisdictions, has for years required developments to provide a minimum amount of parking. While parking is indeed important in many cases, the county’s rules required too much of it, in particular in areas that are meant to encourage biking or transit use. This of course not only uses up valuable land for too-often empty parking lots, but increases the price of the commercial or residential buildings there unnecessarily.

Part of the zoning code update is reducing parking minimums throughout many zones, but especially so in areas near Metro. By making this change, the county is joining a host of local jurisdictions which have been reducing high parking minimums. Most recently, Arlington passed new regulations that require less parking along Metro corridors.

There could be better zoning for areas near Metro, for mixed use development, and for urban agriculture

A big goal of the zoning code rewrite it to clear up the piecemeal and cluttered existing code that has fallen into place over the years. In doing that, the proposed code has some smart improvements that better fit today’s Prince George’s County.

For example, current zoning for mixed-use areas tends to try and force an “instant neighborhood” approach, where all the residential and commercial uses must be built simultaneously, rather than allowing an area to develop more organically. The proposed code adds some flexibility to that approach. The current code also makes it difficult to build dense mixed use projects near Metro stations (and of course requires too much parking for those areas). The proposed code includes new Transit Oriented Zones to help bring better development to those areas.

Changes go beyond supporting better buildings, they also support better urban agriculture. With the new code urban farms and farmers markets will be allowed in more areas than before. They will also have more flexibility in where and when they can sell their food, increasing access to locally grown food.

Something the zoning update should really not do: bring back “call-up”

There is a lot to be excited about in this update, but unfortunately the latest draft suggests bringing back a problematic public process nicknamed “call-up”.

“Call-up” refers to the ability of the county council force an additional review on a development, “calling-up” the project for a review before the council even after the Planning Board has made a ruling. This might make sense if there was an appeal by one of the affected parties, but most egregiously, the county board could “call-up” project even if there was no appeal.

In other words, this system was easily abused, and in 2015 Maryland’s highest court agreed and severely scaled back the purview of the council’s “call-up” powers.

Unfortunately, hidden in the draft of the zoning ordinance is a process called “election,” which basically does the same thing as old “call-up” — give the county council authority to force another review on projects even if no appeal is made.

When you’re sending in your comments today to planning officials, make sure to tell that the county does not need to revisit this issue! Call-up was a problem before, and it will be a problem again if it comes back. We’ve made it easier for you on this one, just click here to send an email that’s clear: NO to “call-up!”

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy and organizing. He lives in Edgewood.