Route 1 communities push back on countywide map amendment
By Brandon Fastman
On Sept. 29, the door closed on public feedback to Prince George’s County’s Countywide Map Amendment (CMA). The CMA is in the second and final phase of the years-long process of the Zoning Rewrite Ordinance Project.
The project aims to update and simplify the county’s existing ordinance, a Byzantine document which was first written in 1949 and has been amended dozens of times per year.
According to the county website, “The CMA process is a non-substantive, technical exercise that transitions a property’s existing zone district to the most comparable zone district that is in the new Zoning Ordinance.”
The CMA reflects new names of zones, but it should not designate new land uses for those zones. As Hyattsville Councilmember Danny Schaible (Ward 2) explained, the public feedback process “is for those who feel there was an error in the new way their zone was designed.” In other words, the CMA should not reflect substantive changes in zoning.
Schaible and a number of activists, however, are concerned that the process favored developers, or at least created loopholes by which developers could game the system to sneak in zoning intensifications.
Meanwhile, in College Park, legislators and community activists are concerned that the zoning reflected in the CMA will substantively change the character of their neighborhoods.
College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn sent a letter to the county council lamenting that city council and staff did not have more input into the zoning decisions made prior to the release of the CMA. They pointed out 10 possible discrepancies that would limit development in the dense downtown areas and that would allow overdevelopment of more residential areas in the northern part of the city.
“I am concerned that these new zoning classifications are going to set developers up so that they can create a new density in our area,” said Mary Cook, president of the North College Park Neighborhood Association. Cook lives west of Route 1. She noted that her neighborhood is home to the largest contiguous green space in the city, and she is concerned that it will be replaced with businesses.
On Sept. 27, a coalition of 21 organizations, including the North College Park Civic Association and Sustainable Hyattsville, sent a letter to the county council and planning board, echoing concerns expressed in a letter sent earlier in the month.
“You chose not to inform the public that developers may use the CMA process to seek to intensify the zones on their properties, and that they could file their zoning applications right up until the close of the CMA public comment period,” the letter reads.
“You chose not to inform county residents, community associations, and municipalities that the Council had received thousands of pages of ethics affidavits, applications, attorneys’ letters, and other relevant documents, and you failed to inform the public of where and how people can view those essential public records.
“You failed to inform the public that Planning staff are already proposing changes to the proposed CMA, and you failed to inform the public about where to find those proposed changes.”
The letter includes a list of demands, including a second set of joint public hearings on applications to intensify zoning on specific properties, along with various measures to better inform the public about rezoning requests.
In a guest commentary on the Maryland Matters website in April, Prince George’s County Councilmember Todd Turner (District 4) wrote, “Advancing the county’s new zoning ordinances and countywide map amendment process to completion was included as a high priority in the December 2020 joint legislative priorities letter from Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks.”
Both activists and elected officials worry that the county’s desire to move quickly on its priority came at the cost of transparency.
Environmental and community activists are concerned that the CMA is a vehicle for developers to rezone without undergoing public review or notifying surrounding communities. Hyattsville Councilmember Schaible noted that many developers — including Werrlein, the firm behind a controversial residential development at the former Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission headquarters adjacent to Driskell Park — participated in a virtual public hearing on the CMA which took place Sept. 13 and 14.
Schaible was on the speaker list also, but he was not able to participate because of technical difficulties. He did submit a letter before the window for feedback closed on Sept. 29.
College Park Councilmember Fazlul Kabir (District 1) was able to comment at the public hearing. He expressed concern about zoning classifications that would create too much density in areas of the city that cannot support it, like the Hollywood commercial district along Rhode Island Avenue. Kabir is not opposed to any development at all, but he is concerned that too much building and population growth will overstress infrastructure. That infrastructure could include water, utilities and roads but also school capacity and public safety.
“If you invest in the public area, that will attract private investment. There’s no need to upzone and take all the risk of negative consequences,” Kabir told Streetcar Suburbs Publishing.
Hyattsville Director of Community and Economic Development Jim Chandler explained that, in terms of development, the county rezoning process focuses on adaptive reuse, main street development and Metro development.
Much of the Route 1 Corridor is zoned as Neighborhood Activity Center (NAC). According to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, NAC “[p]rovides for lower-density, small-scale, mixed-use centers intended to serve surrounding neighborhoods. Vertical mixed-use development, with ground-floor retail, service, or office uses and residential above, is encouraged.”
Mark Ferguson, a planner and Hyattsville Community Development Corporation board member, explained that the new zoning ordinance simplifies the process of building on undeveloped land, but it complicates the process of modifying existing properties. According to Ferguson, this will be especially burdensome for small business owners. “It will have a chilling effect on investment and redevelopment,” he said.
He is also concerned that some existing businesses, including the auto repair shops east of Route 1 in southern Hyattsville, will not conform with NAC uses. Although they can remain in place, these businesses may not be eligible for renovations or upgrades.
RRR Automotive Group President and CEO Richard Patterson testified at the Sept. 13 public hearing. He owns a Toyota dealership in Hyattsville and three businesses in College Park. Patterson said that the new zoning would not impact his Hyattsville store, but would impact his College Park businesses. He worried that he could lose his franchises if the zoning precludes him from renovating.