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Community voices heard at council’s zoning town hall

clarion assocUPPER MARLBORO – As the countywide zoning rewrite continues to take shape, residents are lining up to have their say about what is included in the new ordinance.

The latest public outreach event was a town hall meeting hosted by the Prince George’s County Council on Monday night. Residents filled the well and trickled into an overflow room to hear a presentation from Clarion Associates, the firm contracted to draft the new zoning document, as well as ask questions and give suggestions to the team.

“It’s not an easy task for anyone, but we are committed as a council to dealing with it,” said Council Chair Derrick Davis about the zoning ordinance rewrite. “We should be very measured in our approach.”

Don Elliot, project director at Clarion, said while the company is not rushing the rewrite process, it is trying to keep the momentum going so that residents remain engaged with the process.

“You do need to keep it moving forward,” he said. “If it sounds like we’re rushing: we’re not rushing. We know the further we go along and the better the draft gets, the better comments we get and the more people read it.”

To date, drafts of all three modules – zones and uses, development standards and administration/subdivision regulations – have been released and public comments gathered. Clarion is now working to respond to the input it has received so far to create a comprehensive draft for the public to review. That is expected in September. After the public comment period through the end of 2017, Clarion will present a legislative review draft to the county council, who will carefully review and amend it before passage. Then, the county planning department and board will have to approve it as well before it becomes law.

The end goal of this three-year process is to create a new zoning ordinance that is more user-friendly and encourages the types of development that Prince Georgians want, Elliot said. And that will benefit the residents, not just developers.

“This is not meaning that Clarion or the staff or the council is trying to placate developers. When the county gets investment in jobs, it benefits everybody,” Elliot said. “It benefits the neighbors. Retail and revenue coming into the county means the county can provide more services.”

Some of the provisions in the new ordinance include giving the District Council the ability to determine the adequacy of police and fire/EMS facilities with new construction; built-in standards for commercial development next to residential zones, and increased requirements for public notices, adding in notice for administrative decisions and early public meetings for major projects before the application is even submitted.

“We do believe that it is more helpful to have those meetings early because at that point, you haven’t hired an engineer, you haven’t hired a stormwater engineer, an architect, a designer. Builders can listen to the community better when they haven’t spent a whole lot of money in actually designing a project,” Elliot said.

The proposal also says developers who begin construction on a project or receive approval under the current ordinance will be grandfathered in and can finish the project under the old zoning rules. And, in the mixed-use zones, the requirements for nonresidential uses are increased, Elliot said.

“The residential real estate market is so hot that right now, what the county’s been seeing is, even in transit-oriented areas where there needs to be a mix of jobs and people living, there’s a lot of people living and not very many jobs,” he said. “Transit centers work a lot better with a mix of those two. It’s hard to regulate… but it is worth doing.”

During public comment, 19 people spoke about their ideas for the zoning ordinance, both residents and members of the business/developer community. A common thread among several residents’ testimony was the value of the special exception process for major projects, which requires more public hearings and input.

Denise Hamler, a Cottage City resident and activist, said, “Reducing the number of uses that require a special exception will increase the number of uses that are incompatible with the unique characteristics of the surrounding areas.”

Macy Nelson, an attorney representing citizens in the county who are concerned about more big-box stores like Walmart coming here, said his clients want those stores to still go through the special exception process rather than be allowed by right as proposed. And Paul Thorpe with Smith Industries in Capitol Heights also said the special exception process was important for projects like junkyards as well as major developments.

Thorpe also said that the way the current zoning ordinance treats industrial areas, with each parcel by itself, makes it difficult for companies to truly remodel their facilities.

“We really need an industrial campus plan approach to heavy industrial planning,” he said. “Large industries need to be able to look at four, five, 12 parcels as they’re redeveloping and say, ‘okay, green area is going be across the top parcels here that adjoin the residential neighborhood, all the parking’s going to be in the southeast corridor.’ Instead we’re treating each individual parcel with individual requirements and it just doesn’t work.”

Other comments focused on how to support environmental and social justice through the rewrite, for example by helping disadvantaged communities and strengthening green building standards to fight climate change. Several speakers also mentioned their opinion that developments should be centered around Metro stations.

“I am hoping that this new plan will take into account the interests of the long-term residents of small municipalities, the farmers, and centralize major development around our Metro stations and stop putting in strip malls and shopping centers,” said Margaret Boles.

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