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County councilmembers tussle over zoning, sprawl

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Posted on: June 3, 2024

By KIT SLACK

On May 16, the county councilmember who represents Hyattsville questioned the economics of building apartments and townhouses near Metro stops. Wanika Fisher (District 2) said such high-density development can be expensive to build because properties tend to need to be lifted out of flood plains, where transportation corridors like railways have often been built because of the flat terrain.

Fisher also asked about demand for such development, speculating that buyers who move to the suburbs are looking for backyards and a buffer between themselves and their neighbors.

Jolene Ivey, the current chair of the county council, echoed Fisher’s concern about flood plains. She also said she worries about air quality for children in new high-density developments near transit stations, with few trees to filter the air or help with stormwater control. Ivey represents District 5, which includes cities east and south of Hyattsville like Edmonston and Cheverly, as well as some parts of unincorporated Hyattsville.

In response, Tom Dernoga, who represents District 1, which includes Laurel, said that the county council is part of the problem. The council approves too much development of green spaces inside the beltway, according to Dernoga. Dernoga also said that development has not been paying for itself, pointing to overburdened fire departments and school systems.

Fisher, Ivey and Dernoga had this discussion after a presentation from the county’s park and planning department about development under Plan 2035, the county’s comprehensive development plan approved in 2014. Plan 2035 prioritizes high-density development near transit. During the presentation, staff said they’ll be conducting a fiscal analysis, starting this summer, of the costs and benefits to the county of various types of development.

Ivey and Dernoga are members of the county’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, along with Eric Olson, who represents District 3, which includes College Park, and Calvin Hawkins and Mel Franklin, the county’s two at-large councilmembers.

This spring, the committee has been considering controversial amendments to the county’s zoning rules (CB-15-2024) that change how the county approves development projects. Developers have testified in support of the changes, saying they protect investments in existing projects. Neighborhood associations and environmental groups have opposed them, saying they will allow for more sprawl.

Dernoga and Olson have sided with community groups, opposing motions supported by Ivey, Hawkins, Franklin and representatives of developers.

At an April 18 planning committee meeting, Dernoga and Olson voted against a motion to allow developers to choose between old zoning rules and new zoning rules for another two years. The new zoning rules were originally approved in 2018, and became effective in 2022. Those supporting the bill pointed out that the new zoning rules are long and complicated, and details are still being worked out. Those opposing the bill said developers have had plenty of time to learn the new rules, and that two years of continued flexibility is too favorable to developers.

Data centers

Also in April, Dernoga and Olson abstained on a planning committee vote, supported by their colleagues, that would allow data centers to be built in agricultural zones. Data centers are buildings housing networked computer servers. Community groups testifying at the planning committee meeting expressed concerns about noise, pollution and energy use from the centers.

This spring, the county approved a plan for a data center on the former Landover mall site across from FedEx Field, and developers are planning another on a wooded site in Laurel near an office building and a middle school.

Community control

At the same meeting, at-large councilmember Franklin argued that community input should happen when overall planning is done for an entire area, rather than when the details of a particular development are up for approval.

He proposed reversing legislation from last year (CB-3-2023) that allows the county council to overturn a detailed plan for a development because of conflict with plans for the larger area. Franklin said that most of those area plans, known as master plans and sector plans, are outdated, with 84% put in place before Plan 2035 passed in 2014, and 93% put in place before a 2018 countywide zoning rewrite that he said allowed for public input.

Ivey, who had supported CB-3-2023 last year, explained that she had changed her position because she had come to understand that developers need more certainty in order to invest in a project.

Dernoga argued against Franklin’s proposal, saying the public doesn’t have enough meaningful input early in the process, in part because comprehensive planning is so backlogged. “What we’re telling the public is, ‘Thanks for coming, but we really don’t care about your opinion,” Dernoga said. Dernoga pointed to the council’s history of rewriting zoning through site-specific text amendments, without public disclosure, a process discontinued in another reform last year (CB-2-2023).

The issues discussed in committee are expected to come before the full county council later this summer.

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