By D.W. Rowlands
When College Park residents voted to incorporate in 1945, the town’s boundaries were significantly different than they are today. While the southern and eastern boundaries have not changed significantly in the last seventy-six years, the original northern boundary was Edgewood Road, and the original western boundary was along the western edge of the University of Maryland campus and Paint Branch.
The city’s first annexation — the northern portion of the Hollywood neighborhood between Edgewood Road and the Beltway — was approved by the Maryland General Assembly in 1953. Further annexations were more controversial, though, in part because of a major change in state law in the mid 1950s.
Municipal home rule
When College Park incorporated, the state constitution did not give municipalities home rule. Instead, their incorporation, as well as bond issues and any amendments to their charters — including annexations — had to be passed as bills by the General Assembly.
In 1953, a quarter of the legislature’s total workload consisted of such bills. That year, the Maryland Municipal League — a nonprofit association maintained and controlled by city and town governments — began a push for an amendment to the state constitution that would allow such issues to be handled through local referenda rather than by the legislature.
Despite initial opposition from state legislators who were protective of their traditional prerogative to pass or reject bills related to municipalities in their counties, a bill calling for a referendum on a constitutional amendment allowing municipal home rule passed in March 1954.
The constitutional amendment referendum passed during the 1954 general election, and the governor signed the municipal home rule act in 1955. That act, in amended form, is still in force today. The law allowed municipalities to annex land with the consent of 25% of the registered voters, or of the owners of 25% of the value of land in the area that was to be annexed. It also included a provision that essentially halted municipal incorporations in the state by giving county governments a veto on new cities within their boundaries.
College Park made its first use of the new annexation procedure in 1956, with a referendum to annex the Sunnyside neighborhood between the Beltway and the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. While roughly 80% of the residents of the subdivision east of Rhode Island Avenue supported the annexation, business owners along Baltimore Avenue — which was the western boundary of the area to be annexed — opposed it.
Shortly after the Sunnyside annexation became effective, in December 1956, these business owners sued to reverse it, alleging that the municipal home rule act was unconstitutional and that the city’s decision to include their property — roughly two-thirds of the annexed land — was arbitrary and capricious.
The business owners argued that they would receive no city services, since Baltimore Avenue is a state road and since the city did not provide waste removal for businesses. The business owners further argued that they were only being included in the annexation so the city could tax them. The lawsuit was dismissed in August 1957, and the entire area became part of College Park.
Failed Beltsville Agricultural Research Center annexation
In the 1960s and ’70s, College Park successfully annexed several areas northwest of the city. College Park Woods was annexed in January 1960, along with the land that is home to the National Archives facility. Over the next two decades, the existing residential neighborhood of Crystal Springs was annexed as well.
College Park also made a failed attempt to annex a much larger area that would have nearly doubled the city’s size. In 1967, the city council passed a resolution to annex Paint Branch Park, nearly to the Montgomery County border, along much of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center; Patricia Court off Metzerott Road; and the Seven Springs apartment complex, which was under construction.
The annexation proposal was opposed by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (which owns Paint Branch Park), the Department of Agriculture, residents of Beltsville (who feared it was a prelude to an attempt to annex their unincorporated community), the City of Greenbelt (which objected to the annexation of land east of the B&O — now Camden Line — railroad tracks) and the owners of the Seven Springs site.
In response to Greenbelt’s complaints, the city dropped the attempt to annex the eastern portion of the agricultural research, and a lawsuit by the owners of the Seven Springs site led to the annexation being overturned on procedural grounds in May 1968. While Patricia Court was eventually annexed to the city, the rest of the area never was, despite a second attempt in 1971 to annex the same area (though excluding Seven Springs).
More recent annexations have been small and generally only covered single properties that were about to be developed. These annexations have occurred with the consent of the landowners, who sometimes obtained tax breaks in exchange.
The College Park Marketplace strip mall was annexed in 1996, before the stores opened, and the Courtyards apartment site was annexed in 1997, while the apartments were being built. The area north of the Beltway and west of Baltimore Avenue was annexed in 2003, while the whole property was still owned by IKEA, and the site of the Domain College Park apartments was annexed prior to construction in 2010.