County revising 50-year-old zoning ordinance
Looks to receive expert assistance from Clarion Associates on rewrite
Focusing on the county’s future by updating its 50-year old zoning ordinance to help create more modern policies, the Prince George’s County Council hosted a joint town hall meeting with the Prince George’s County Planning Department on July 12 to inform residents of a zoning ordinance and subdivision rewrite.
The meeting, held at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, featured presentations from planning department officials including Countywide Planning Division Chief Derick Berlage, Project Manger Chad Williams and Project Community Outreach Specialist Brittney Drakeford. Residents were also given an opportunity to share their testimony at the end.
“Updating the county’s zoning policies is among the most important undertakings of the council and its role as the county’s land use authority,” Council Chairman Derrick L. Davis (D) said as he gave his introductory remarks. “It will enhance the ability of this
important economic development tool to stimulate growth in our county.”
According to the council’s website, the Prince George’s County Zoning Ordinance is part of the county code. It describes the various zones, lists the uses permitted in each zone, specifies densities and sets forth the procedures to change the zones. The ordinance establishes standards for the location of structures, building heights, setback and other area requirements. Zoning categories allow residential, commercial or industrial uses at varying densities or intensities. Some of the more recently adopted zones permit a mix of compatible land uses which are subject to certain standards.
The current code is significantly outdated and overly complex with more than 1,200 pages, making the land-development process expensive, time consuming and unpredictable. Additionally, the current code is not reflective of the vision for future growth in the county. By updating the zoning ordinance, planning department officials hope to create an intuitive and modern set of development regulations that support the county’s vision for quality growth and economic development while improving the quality of life for residents, the planning department’s website noted.
Since the county launched the Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations Rewrite in 2014, Davis said the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission staff has been working closely with the council members to streamline the zoning code, something the residents deserve, he said.
“Reviewing and updating this code is a substantial project, conducted in partnership with the planning department, the business community and most importantly, you, our citizens who elected the council to this task,” said Davis. “Modernizing the code will promote growth, sustainable communities and economic vitality in Prince George’s County.”
The zoning ordinance update should have a positive impact on all individuals who live, work or play in Prince George’s County. The rewrite of the zoning code will encourage more community input and streamline processes. As a result, this will lead to a more predictable experience for development, according to planning department officials.
“In Prince George’s County, before we zone land, we have to have a plan for every neighborhood and for every region in the county to make sure that our zoning law is going to get us the kind of development that we want to see,” Berlage said. “The most important land use plan that we have is the [Plan Prince George’s 2035].”
Plan 2035, adopted by the council two years ago, is the blueprint for where and how the county grows over the next 20 years. The plan establishes goals, policies, strategies and a new growth vision that will help direct new development to existing transit-oriented centers, focus public investment on the county’s economic engines, capitalize on and maintain its infrastructure, strengthen its established communities and proactively preserve its natural, historic and cultural resources. The plan identifies updating the zoning and subdivision ordinance as the number one priority, according to the planning department’s website.
“Ninety to 95 percent of what’s going to be built under these plans will be built by the private sector. So how do we get the private sector to build what we want? That’s what zoning and subdivision are for,” Berlage said.
Because the county’s current ordinance is an impediment to economic growth, Berlage said policies need to be updated in order to create jobs and increase nonresidential tax base.
“While we have very high incomes in this county, what we don’t have is a large enough commercial tax base,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important that we have a zoning ordinance that will attract good commercial development to the places we want it.”
Berlage said the planning department has chosen Clarion Associates as its consultant for expert assistance in rewriting the ordinance. The project goals include having an ordinance everyone can understand; allowing citizens to know what, when and how; protecting the things the county doesn’t want to change; providing tools for development in growth areas; and having quality development that protects the county’s environmental and historical resources and neighborhoods.
“We don’t want new development that happens in the county to compromise the quality of life of the neighborhood you live in,” Berlage said. “Clarion has recommended what they call neighborhood compatibility standards. These standards kick in anytime a developer is proposing to build something next to a single-family neighborhood ... other than another single-family neighborhood. So if it’s apartments or townhouses or office development or a mixed-used development, these standards automatically kick in. They govern things like the distance from the neighborhood, the height of the new construction, noise standards [and] landscaping standards. They put the protection of the neighborhood first.”
Clarion Associates also made other recommendations which include large retail development standards, protection standards for farmland and open space, re- vised fence and wall standards, revised signage standards, according to Berlage’s presentation.
“Setting the minimal level of quality that we’re going to impose on development is really hard. It’s a balancing test because if we set the standard too low, then developers will build things that are not as nice as we otherwise could have gotten and we don’t want that,” Berlage said. “But if we set the standard too high, we get no development. … We’ve got to set it in the right sweet spot.”
For Montgomery County resident John Havermail, a construction worker who has built in both counties, he said the zoning rewrite is a tremendous undertaking but needs to be done.
“You’ve got targeted growth areas but the toolbox that you want to use doesn’t have the right tools in it to allow you to accomplish this,” Havermail said.
“Clarion [Associates] and the zoning rewrite team have done an exceptional job anticipating the need to revitalize specific areas where the uses no longer serve citizens of Prince George’s County,” said Peter Goldsmith, a former county project manager for NVR Inc., who is now an associate with Linowes and Blocher LLP. “It will be important to consider maintaining flexibility in these zones where revitalization will be critical to the vitality of communities.”