College Park in Prince George's County. Image by thisisbossi licensed under Creative Commons.

At planning board hearings, it’s common to hear outrage from citizens about how the first they’re learning about a development is at the hearing to approve or deny it. In these cases, much of the opposition (not necessarily all of it though) stems not from the project itself, but from the process. To some it seems like decisions that affect the neighborhood are made in a black box, but a new provision in the county's ongoing zoning update could help address this.

In Prince George’s County, if a development project is on the Planning Board agenda, the builder is required to send a mailed notice to adjacent property owners, civic associations, and people of record. (A person of record is given notice of upcoming meetings, of actions and decisions at certain stages of the zoning application process, and of relevant appeals procedures.)

Developers must also publicize the notice in the local newspaper of record and post a sign on the property with contact information. The public can also sign up for an automated message to inform them if a development project near them will be heard at the Planning Board.

There's a better way to do this

While this is a fairly standard approach to engaging with the public, it can be problematic because it occurs at the very end of the development review process – that is, after the developer has hired engineers and architects to design the project. The time in the development review process when the public can learn about a project is important. The later it is in the process, the more difficult it is for the developer to make any substantial changes.

In short, if architecture and engineering designs have been created, altering those plans may also require altering the underlying plans, such as storm water management and wetland impact mitigation strategies. This can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor, and can stop a project from breaking even or from being built at all.

A posted notice board indicates when a development application will be heard by the Planning Board. Image by the author.

Prince George’s County released a public draft of a proposed comprehensive zoning ordinance in autumn of 2017. In addition to the existing notice procedures, the draft includes a provision where the developer would be required to host a “Pre-Application Neighborhood Meeting” where they would be able to share what is planned with the community.

The pre-application neighborhood meeting is not proposed for all types of new development. It applies only to the most impactful projects, such as zoning map amendments or residential developments over 75 dwelling units and commercial projects over 150,000 square feet.

The pre-application neighborhood meeting is beneficial for the community because it gives them an opportunity to hear about a project at the beginning stages of the development review process. Since this meeting does not replace the public hearing, it becomes an additional opportunity to learn about a development that is planned for the neighborhood.

This public meeting update formalizes a best practice

This type of public meeting isn’t completely new to the county. Savvy developers know that support from the community is crucial for a successful project and already hold these meetings informally. In fact, Councilmember Mary A. Lehman and her staff organize similar meetings for potential developments in District 1. The proposed ordinance would simply formalize this practice.

This meeting is also an opportunity for the public to comment on the proposal at the beginning stages, and raise any potential concerns early. It is expected that this meeting would take place before final project designs were created. This means that while detailed plans could not be shown at these meetings, the developer could better consider public feedback while designing the project.

A member of the public speaks at a Prince George's County Planning Board Hearing. Image by the author.

Notice for the pre-application neighborhood meeting would be sent out similarly to the notice for the public hearing, that is mailed notices and a posted sign on the property to indicate the upcoming meeting. It’s important to note that these meetings are informational and designed for the public to better understand what’s coming to the neighborhood. Ideally, they will help better inform and engage with the public, so that the first time they hear about a project isn’t at the final public hearing.

More information about the Pre-Application Neighborhood Meeting and the proposed zoning ordinance is available online. Also, GGWash is hosting a Happy Hour to talk zoning on February 6 in College Park at Milkboy ArtHouse.

Bryan Barnett-Woods is a transportation planner in Prince George’s County with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. In addition to bicycling and rowing, Bryan likes nothing more than a good walk in the city. He lives in Barney Circle with his wife and young son. The opinions expressed in this post represent Bryan’s opinions only and do not represent the opinions of his employer.