Riverdale, MD by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

Prince George’s zoning code is far out of step of today’s needs, so late last month the County Council introduced the first pieces of legislation to overhaul it. If passed, urban areas throughout the county could benefit greatly, but if this first vote was any indication, this change is not going to come easily.

A much-needed update

Half a century ago, Prince George’s County had far fewer urbanized areas and was mostly a rural and suburban place. Since then, the population has increased almost 50%, approaching one million people. It’s also much more transit-rich, though there is room for improvement.

The county’s zoning code has never been completely updated, so planners have simply made incremental changes to react to situations and challenges as they arose. The result is a sprawling and complex zoning code that doesn’t meet the needs of many areas.

With that in mind, officials have been drafting and redrafting a new zoning code. Frankly, almost any update would be better than what currently exists. Fortunately the draft coming forward to a vote later this year has some particularly good elements to it.

College Park, Maryland. by thisisbossi licensed under Creative Commons.

What’s good? Organic growth, smarter zones, better public engagement, right-sized parking

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of this rewrite is that it clears out the patchwork rules in the county’s current code and simplifies them. A good example of this is the current zoning codes for mixed-use areas.

When mixed-use development came back into vogue, the county added a mixed-use zone that essentially prescribed the “instant neighborhood” approach to growth and development. In other words, the code prescribed a somewhat inflexible mix of residential and commercial uses that weren’t a good fit in most cases. The new rewrite has more flexible rules that allow owners to adapt, and ultimately will mean more successful and organic growth in mixed-use areas.

Prince George’s County has also not seen the kind of transit-oriented development you would hope for near Metro stations and other transit corridors. This is in part because of some outdated and unhelpful regulations, such as requiring too much parking. The new code has developed specific Transit-Oriented Zones to encourage walking and transit, and they have a lot of promise.

There are a host of improvements like these sprinkled throughout the update: greener development, smarter regulations for urban agriculture, even an improved and more transparent public engagement process for neighborhoods.

And yes, the zoning code rewrite takes on parking. Across the board, many developments in Prince George’s County build way too much parking, which poses a heavy cost on available land, on pedestrian safety and infrastructure, and on the environment. The new code would significantly lower parking minimums in many cases, add increased flexibility and sensitivity for projects near transit, and add smarter parking management regulations.

Parking lot in Forrestville. by Bryan Barnett-Woods.

There’s still “call-up,” but let’s fight that another day

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months you know that there’s one particular piece of the zoning code rewrite we really don’t like: a dubious process called “call-up” (in the new parlance, it appears as “election”).

To be clear, we still think “call-up” is a detrimental tool and hope to see it gone. But this is just one piece of a larger whole in terms of how planning and development works in the county, and we plan to explore the balance of power between Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), the County Executive, and the County Council as we consider the merits of the zoning rewrite.

Let’s also be clear: the majority of the zoning code rewrite is a huge improvement for the county and will bring much better development in many ways. While not perfect by any means, supporters should get ready to do what they can to support the upcoming bill.

There are only a few months left before the council will move to vote on a finalized updated zoning code. It’s important that GGWash supporters across the county stay involved in these pivotal months.

This update needs your support

The new zoning code draft came before the council on April 24. This was only a vote to move the process forward, and it barely passed 5-4. At issue in part was the timing of the entire process during the election year, something Councilmember Danielle Glaros (District 3) admitted does not help: “Because we are in a transition year, we are working under a way tighter timeline that we typically do.”

The pivotal vote came from Councilmember Mel Franklin (District 9), who voted in favor but made it very clear how he felt:

I’m a little concerned that there is so much unreadiness about this legislation, so I’m going to advise my colleagues that I want to see us move the county forward… but I’m not going to support this if it’s a 5-4 vote. We need consensus on this legislation. I will vote to support this today, but we should not do the zoning rewrite on a 5-4 vote.

It is a troubling start for what could be one the biggest improvements to the county’s land-use regulations in decades.

The county is hosting three public hearings and it’s going to be really important that supporters attend and make their voices heard. The first is tonight, May 14 at 7 pm at the Council Administration Building in Upper Marlboro (14741 Gov. Oden Bowie Drive). The rest are July 10 and July 17 at 7 pm and 2:30 pm respectively.

David Whitehead is the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David works 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.