Enabling sprawl in Bowie on a fast track, with unintended consequences county-wide

A major change to the Subdivision Ordinance in Prince George’s is being rushed through to help one developer. County-wide impacts remain murky but could be disastrous for any Smart Growth effort


/By Martha Ainsworth/ The weeks leading up to the summer recess of the Prince George’s County Council can produce “stealth” bills that are fast-tracked, with little public notice, limited review, and little or no analysis of unintended consequences. 

 A case in point is CB-39-2016, introduced by Councilman Todd Turner.  The bill would allow developers in areas designated as “centers” in the County’s new General Plan, Plan Prince George’s 2035, to submit subdivision plans with higher residential densities than have been approved in their Master Plans.  

 The bill benefits a developer that wants to add a dense residential component to an office park in Bowie, next to the Patuxent River and 10 miles from a metro.  That’s bad for the river, bad for congestion, bad for the environment.  Not smart growth. But in doing so, the bill introduces a major change to the Subdivision Ordinance that affects properties county-wide. 

 There are a total of 26 local centers and 8 regional transit districts in Plan Prince George’s 2035.  According to planning staff, the bill would apply to all of them.  But staff were given only 48 hours after the bill was introduced to analyze the impact before it was considered by the Planning Board, which consequently took no position on the bill. The Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee was asked to comment only 5 business days after the bill was introduced.  CB-39-2016 is scheduled for public hearing and a vote on Tuesday July 19th.  As far as I can tell, the public knows nothing about this bill and County Council members are struggling to understand its impact.

 What might be some specific impacts?  Some of the new centers are next to major Metro or MARC stations, where higher density may make sense.  But Plan 2035 also designates five areas as “town centers” located in “auto-accessible” suburban areas without mass transit. 

 The Plan’s guidelines allow these town centers – Bowie, Brandywine, Konterra, Landover Gateway, and Westphalia -- densities of up to 60 units/acre.  Collectively they include more than 2,700 acres of land zoned as “mixed use – transportation, ” which allows a mix of uses, residential and commercial, but doesn’t specify any density or cap on residential. 

 Using Plan 2035’s guidelines, the five town centers theoretically would be able to submit subdivision plans for more than 162,000 residential units!*  In contrast, Plan 2035 proposes a cap of only 6,300 additional residential units in town centers county-wide over the next 20 years!  It’s hard to see how CB-39-2016 advances that objective.

 I’ve focused on the five town centers because they are far from mass transit; the environmental impacts will be great. There hasn’t been time to examine the impacts on the other 21 local centers across the county.  But they may also be vulnerable.

 CB-39-2016 is a major change in the Subdivision Ordinance. It’s being fast-tracked as a favor for a developer, but has county-wide impacts.  It is likely to undermine the Plan 2035’s objectives to concentrate growth around metro stations, with substantial environmental consequences and cost to the public. It deserves the Planners’ and the Council’s full review, without the rush.  If the sponsor does not withdraw it, Council members should oppose it. 

 * This is the case even if they chose to put commercial development on much of the land, because the allowable residential is computed on the acreage of the total mixed use parcel, not just the area where housing would occur.


 Ainsworth is chair of the Prince George’s group of the Sierra Club.