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Photo Credit: Trevor Skeen

A developer challenged an activist regarding infrastructure. A resident corrected a lawyer about rezoning. These and other disagreements took place at the Prince George’s County House Delegation annual public bill hearing on Dec. 4. 

The meeting also included about 20 members of the Maryland House of Delegates and two state senators, who, led by Del. Nicole Williams (District 22), reviewed a variety of legislation for the upcoming year. Around 20 bills were covered during the three-hour meeting, including ones that addressed planning and zoning matters, traffic control systems and the county school district. 

Community Empowerment Act

Prince George’s and Montgomery County (PG/MC) 107-24 is titled Community Benefits Agreements, but it is often referred to as the Community Empowerment Act. (For this and other bi-county bills, it is worth noting that members of both county delegations must agree before moving the legislation to a standing committee.) 

According to the bill, “The district council may require that a developer negotiate and enter into a written community benefits agreement if at least 25% of the residents, landowners or businesses in the impact area [defined as those within a 2-mile radius] oppose the development.” The county council sits as the district council when it is deciding zoning and land use matters.

In addition, the proposed legislation outlines that in a dispute over a community benefits agreement, the Prince George’s County People’s Zoning Counsel, who attends all hearings on zoning matters to protect the interests of county residents, will represent members of the impacted community before the district council. It also states that community members can seek a civil injunction if the benefits agreement is violated. So, in essence, the bill could give community members more influence during the development review process and more assistance if the developer does not comply with the agreement. 

Joseph Jakuta, who was representing the Sierra Club Maryland Chapter, said he supports this legislation because it will likely mitigate some of the negative effects associated with development projects. 

“Land-use decisions often involve disproportionate impacts on some communities and some individuals,” Jakuta said. “Too often projects are approved despite strong opposition from the community. The benefits go to the developers, and the costs of these adverse impacts are borne by the community.” 

Erika Fareed, a Glenarden councilmember, also said the bill is beneficial because it empowers community voices.

“The requirement for developers to negotiate and enter into community benefits agreements is a testament to our commitment to inclusive development,” Fareed said. “It ensures that development projects, which can often seem opposing or disconnected from local needs, directly contribute to the well-being and enhancement of the communities they are set to serve.” 

In contrast, two representatives from Rodgers Consulting spoke against the bill. One of them, Casey Anderson, specifically responded to community activist Janna Parker, who made comments that development projects often fail to include the appropriate infrastructure. While Parker said that residents do not want more development without good enough utilities, road systems and public schools, Anderson said it is routine for builders to add turn lanes, sidewalks or even green space as part of the development process. 

Then, Anderson and his colleague, Senior Director Matthew Wessel, both said the Community Empowerment Act is subjective, arbitrary and political in nature. They added that the bill will make it difficult for developers to plan their projects. 

“It’s not clear what community benefits this bill is hoping to provide, and, if the developer is required to provide community benefits, how much would be deemed enough?” Wessel asked. “This would make the development process even more political and unpredictable, leaving developers with no way of knowing what they will be expected to do to get their projects done or how much it would cost.” 

Zoning Amendment Prohibition

Public comments from community activists, local residents and representatives of developers and builders’ associations also included a range of perspectives on PG/MC 115-24, which would prohibit the county council from changing zoning law to permit single-family housing on certain airport property. 

During public comments, two airports were repeatedly mentioned: the Freeway Airport, in Bowie, and Hyde Field, in Clinton. According to multiple WTOP articles, Freeway Airport in particular has a complicated past, as the county council originally voted to rezone it in 2019, which the Maryland Court of Appeals subsequently overturned in 2022. However, the Maryland Supreme Court ruled in favor of the developer earlier this year. The confusion continues, as the current council — “which is led by a majority that takes a different view on development,” according to a WTOP article — recently rescinded its own legislation that favored the rezoning. 

Shipley & Horne lawyer Robert Antonetti Jr., who represents the developer Freeway Realty LLC, said the county council already has a process for evaluating rezoning, as it did in 2019. 

“Furthermore, there is a judicial process for applicants, property owners and aggrieved individuals to challenge local land-use decisions, including local ordinances,” Antonetti said. “Thus, there’s no need for the General Assembly to insert itself in this matter.”

However, Hyattsville resident Jon Robinson responded that the same county council Antonetti credited as a decision-making body had since repealed the rezoning.

“It’s ironic that the lawyer for the developer talked about the authority of the county council,” Robinson said. “They’re actually appealing the actions of the county council that did away with … the zoning that they were able to get because of their political power with the previous council.” 

Traffic Control Device Monitoring Systems 

There appeared to be more consensus on legislation not related to land-use and zoning. One such bill, PG 301-24, sponsored by Del. Anne Healey (District 22), would authorize the use of traffic control device monitoring systems by local and state agencies. Healey said there is even more advocacy for stop-sign cameras and other monitoring systems following the recent tragedy in Riverdale Park, in which two children were killed in a crosswalk near the elementary school. 

Riverdale Park resident Eleanor Hancock, who lives about four blocks from where the accident occurred, said stories of driver misconduct flooded her neighborhood following the tragedy. Hancock said her daughter has regularly complained about the dangerous intersection between Taylor Road and Longfellow Street. 

“Speeding — and failure to stop at stop signs — is an epidemic throughout Riverdale Park,” Hancock said. “Our community needs the freedom to install traffic control cameras at strategic points in order to change driver behavior that has grown dangerous from enforcement neglect.” 

Two education bills

The education bills also had a lot of support. One of them, PG 501-24, would require the board to hire an independent contractor to assess the possibility of relocating the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) headquarters.

County school board member Pamela Boozer-Strother (District 3), whose district includes Hyattsville, said she and her colleagues attended the hearing as a show of gratitude to, and unity with, the House Delegation. Additionally, she explained that the bill is in alignment with the school system’s Climate Change Action Plan.

Boozer-Strother said that by relocating its headquarters, the district can demolish inefficient buildings, repurpose vacant land and reduce operating costs. Moreover, she explained that the bill is the first step toward having a clean-energy, world-class headquarters that is more centrally located in the county. 

Another proposed education bill, PG 503-24, also had an array of advocates. As the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Alonzo Washington (District 22) said that although the median home price in the county is $415,000, the starting salary for educators is only about $55,000. To counteract this discrepancy, his bill would provide a property tax credit — up to $2,500 annually — for teachers and personnel who have worked for PGCPS for at least two years. 

Theresa Dudley, a teacher involved with the state and county education associations, was the last public speaker of the evening. She took the podium to support her fellow educators around 9 p.m. — three hours after the meeting started.  

“The 2024 legislative session is an important opportunity to continue to build on the strong work and history of commitment to our public schools by the government and the legislature,” Dudley said. “You saved the best for last — how about that!”