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Government & Politics

Battle over development pits progressives against the old guard in Prince George’s

Prince George’s County Council Chair Tom Dernoga (D) gives remarks during a press briefing Dec. 6 at the Wayne K. Curry Administration Building in Largo. Photo by William J. Ford.

The Prince George’s County Council’s new progressive majority flexed its muscle in public on Monday, using its first formal voting session of the term to repeal a series of zoning provisions considered favorable to developers and commercial landowners.

The actions, which critics said bypassed traditional procedures, occurred during a sometimes tense two-hour session. They were repeatedly condemned by a handful of council members who had approved the measures, several of which were adopted just prior to the November elections, when the veteran lawmakers and their allies tended to hold the gavel.

Those critics on the council accused the panel’s new chair and his five allies of needless haste, and they said the group’s actions will deter private sector investment in the county. Councilmember Mel Franklin (D) said recently-elected lawmakers, many of whom campaigned on the need for improved housing and retail, were taking steps that could wind up thwarting those goals.

“You’re going to hurt a number a number of developments that are bringing high-quality amenities to our county,” he said. “You are going to create significant uncertainty in the business community. … It looks like you’re saying Prince George’s County is closed for business.”

The council repealed five zoning provisions that had been sought by business interests, in many cases on 6-3 votes, with two members abstaining. The majority in each case consisted of three veteran lawmakers — Council Chair Tom Dernoga (D), Jolene Ivey (D) and Ed Burroughs (D) — and three newcomers, Vice-Chair Wala Blegay (D), Eric Olson (D) and Krystal Oriadha (D).

The three “no” votes — Franklin, Sydney Harrison (D) and Calvin Hawkins (D) — served in leadership positions prior to November’s elections. All three supported a controversial redistricting measure that was overturned by the state’s highest court after being challenged by colleagues (those who once sat in the minority) and a broad coalition of citizens.

Two newcomers, Councilmembers Ingrid Watson (D) and Wanika Fisher (D), were attending their first meeting and chose to abstain from several votes.

“I completely reject the idea that these repeals are saying the county is bad for business,” said Blegay. “We have a lot of development throughout this county.”

“Frankly, not every development in this county is quality,” she added. “That’s why we’re here. That’s we got elected. And that’s why we’re doing these repeals.”

One development attorney — speaking on the condition of anonymity — questioned whether the council has the power to invalidate approved zoning provisions via resolution, the tool the council used on Monday. It would not be a surprise to see the council’s actions spur litigation, particularly in cases where projects have already broken ground, the person added.

The council’s attorney offered members assurances that their resolutions had “the force and effect” of law.

A spokesperson for County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) said Alsobrooks was unavailable for comment on the council’s actions or on the apparent shift in the council’s political leaning. Alsobrooks had a generally stress-free working relationship with the prior council majority, a group widely seen as amenable to the business community.

In addition to the zoning changes, the new progressive majority introduced a raft of measures that are likely to be considered in the new year.

Some of those measures would:

  • Limit where self-storage facilities can be built
  • Place limits on the number of tobacco shops in a given community
  • Require the Alsobrooks administration to launch an “open data” portal on the county’s website
  • Require a “health impact assessment” on land-use matters
  • Provide incentives for residents who install security cameras

The skirmish over the zoning measures brought to the open policy differences that are rarely aired in public in Prince George’s. Franklin asked pointedly whether members driving repeal of the zoning bills had read the legislation they were intent on undoing. There was silence in the chamber.

He and others cautioned their colleagues that rushing measures to a vote can have unintended consequences. “This is something you have to learn. When I first came into office, I thought I knew a lot, too,” Franklin said. “And it turned out I didn’t.”

But Ivey defended the new council’s decision to pack its first-day agenda. “We have a sense of urgency about the problems we need to address,” she said in an interview. “Business-as-usual has not been helpful to our county.”

She noted that many of the measures the council acted upon on Monday had just become law that day. “We had to put this legislation in, in order to stop them from taking effect.”

Janna Parker, an education advocate who resides in Temple Hills, took issue with Franklin’s claim that the new majority is anti-business.

“For several years, those in power have not listened,” she said. “This new council isn’t anti-development. They are pro-people and community-centered development, which businesses somehow can do and thrive in doing in counties like Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery, but don’t want to do in counties like Prince George’s.” 

Parker said she looks forward to “smart development” that benefits county residents, is “environmentally conscious and sound,” and doesn’t result in stormwater management problems or over-development.

The council begins its three-day annual retreat on Tuesday at National Harbor.

William J. Ford contributed to this report.