Prince George’s County officials, business owners and activists are pushing for a new development process that will seek residents’ input earlier in the cycle to prevent costly problems later.
At a Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee meeting Nov. 14 hosted by County Councilman Mel Franklin (D-Dist. 9) of Upper Marlboro to discuss efforts to increase development around the county’s Metro stations, attendees recommended getting feedback from the community and County Council early on in the development process to cut down on having developers make expensive changes well into the process.
“Now, we almost wait until the back end of the approval process to get into the meat of what [the council] really wants to see,” said William Shipp, a Calverton-based development attorney. “That’s when we get all of the controversy. But if we get the buy-in from the public and the county up front, now that we’ve come together to figure it out, you can say, ‘As long as you implement this concept, we’ll let you go through an engineering and permitting process to get that done.’”
Franklin said under the current process, some developers involve residents early on in the process, but many other times, community members are not heard from until the conceptual or detailed site plan stages, two of the final approvals needed before permitting and construction.
Dan Smith, co-chairman of the Friends of Lower Beaverdam Creek, a Cheverly-based environmental group, agreed, saying “robust” public input early in the development process could iron out a lot of difficulties residents and developers encounter, and restore public trust.
“If the planning process is more robust, we could rely a lot more on the professional planning staff [as projects move forward],” Smith said. “We’re seeing developments at the community level too late in the process now, but if we could get conceptual shifts done early on, we’d have more confidence that there aren’t ways to game the system.”
Franklin said after the meeting that he felt the council now has a framework from which to build new legislation. By codifying “preapplication meetings” with the community at the beginning of the process, he said, the county can streamline the overall development process without sacrificing transparency, provided developers stick to the rules laid out in county planning guidelines.
“If a developer chooses to pursue something different, you can’t avoid the controversy or length of process,” Franklin said. “... But we can provide a really streamlined process if developers want to do the right kind of development that we want to see.”
Franklin said the promise of a speedy process also could give developers the incentive to conform to zoning design standards, and decrease the number of controversial cases residents have to fight and the council has to weigh. Since the approval process is already long and unwieldy, Franklin said, developers are more likely now to reach for projects that go beyond the standards laid out in planning documents.
“I think the predictability [of an earlier and quicker review process] creates an incentive in and of itself to follow the standards,” Franklin said. “I think the current system creates a negative incentive not to follow the rules as they stand, because there’s no payoff if you do follow them.”
Franklin said he hopes to introduce legislation early next year incorporating proposals raised in the meeting.