In Prince George’s, people are skeptical of the county’s development processes — and with some good reason. Residents are wary of pay-to-play politics, and developers think the review process is difficult and hampers efforts to attract high-quality development. The county is completely rewriting its zoning code, which is certainly progress for everyone.
However, this much-needed rewrite may end up being two steps forward, one step back if the maligned “call-up” process is brought into the new zoning code. For some, it’s tempting to keep “call-up” as a way of fighting suspicious or bad development. But if we’re going to move forward as a county, we’ve got to drop this problematic process.
The case for “call-up”
The county has an ugly history of pay-to-play, cronyism, and outright corruption in the development review process. Over the past eight years this culture has changed considerably for the better, but perception is important and the county needs to continue to show that it is operating above board.
The “call-up” process essentially allows the county council to re-decide development cases that have already been approved by the Planning Board. The new version of “call-up” is “election,” which was recently was added back into the latest zoning rewrite draft at the request of some councilmembers.
Election is a scaled-back version of “call-up” in that it doesn’t allow the county council to completely undo a Planning Board’s decision, but only allows them to act an appellate court would. It does still allow the county council to “elect” to review a development case even if no party is appealing.
Prince George’s County is unique in having this “call-up” authority. Montgomery County, though still under the jurisdiction of Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), does not have this procedure and instead relies on the system of appellate courts. Montgomery chooses to not mix county politics with individual development decisions, and allows the courts to arbitrate disputes instead.
But Prince George’s County is also unique in that (prior to the upcoming election) the county council has been composed entirely of district representatives with no councilmembers serving at-large. The practical result of both has been each councilmember wielding significant influence over what projects do and don’t happen in their district, again feeding the perception that development review is politicized and the approval process fraught with uncertainties.
Some council members will tell you that they use “call-up” power to promote good projects in their districts while holding off bad ones, which admittedly could be helpful in a jurisdiction where development has historically tilted toward sprawl. But the potential for abuse of this power is obvious, and was a significant factor in the 2015 court ruling against “call-up.”
A number of citizens and elected officials support “call-up” authority for the District Council on the grounds that it provides a check on the planning process. When a community has a problem with a project, a council member can use “call-up” authority to extract changes or to even outright kill a project. While this may look like responsive democracy, this is really an indictment of the planning process. The solution is a better, more inclusive planning process, not giving councilmembers a reset button.
We need a trustworthy planning and development process in the county
Both sides of the “call-up” argument agree that we need a trustworthy county planning and development process. Some well-meaning folks see “call-up” as a tool to fight and correct dubious development decisions.
But “call-up” is a double-edged sword: Any perceived benefit of “call-up” is outweighed by its very real downsides, and ultimately doesn’t address the real problem. The solution to a bad guy with “call-up” powers is not a good guy with “call-up” powers — the solution is building transparency with county officials and staff, and trust with their planning and development decisions.
We all agree that Prince George’s needs a fair and open planning and development process that is inclusive of residents’ voices and that makes them feel like they’ve been heard.
There are many parts of the zoning rewrite that will do this. But rather than holding onto a double-edged process, county residents and officials need to let go and push instead for a zoning rewrite that gives professional planners more deference, provides more opportunities for public input, and raises the bar for quality development. This will go a long way to addressing the county’s current problems and will ultimately result in more of the high-quality projects everyone wants to see.
Join me in being for a trustworthy planning and development structure in Prince George’s County. Sign our petition today! Let’s restore trust in the system, and leave “call-up” and its new cousin “election” out of the picture.