This will be a critical question in the next month or two as our County Council considers a significant change in the planning process that would limit public input on many projects.
Next week the Maryland National Park & Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) is expected to present the County Council with an important 160-page package of Mixed-Use Zone legislation granting M-NCPPC staff the right to administratively approve mixed-use projects. The fast-track timeline calls for this to be passed in July.
Currently, the Planning Board approves projects subject to review by the County Council, acting as District Council. Council members–our elected representatives–wield a good deal of power in the planning process in Prince George’s County…something that has an up side and a down side (more on that later).
The M-NCPPC proposes giving developers incentives to create true mixed-use development with a sense of place. The intent is to create a new mixed-use zoning category utilizing what is called a form-based code. Approval of a specific site plan would be an administrative matter handled by planning staff–without public input because there would be no Planning Board or District Council review.
The form-based code Mixed-use Zone legislation has many worthwhile elements that can facilitate smart growth and transit-oriented development; other elements leave something to be desired. And whether it is appropriate for Prince George’s County is something we will explore later. But the legislation’s genesis is the real worry.
While the Mixed-use Zone legislation has been two years in the making, the public has only recently, and somewhat ineptly or disingenuously, been invited into the process. Three poorly publicized meetings occurred in the 9 days preceding the Planning Board’s vote, the last was the evening of May 13–the Planning Board voted on May 14. The mayors and councils of municipalities have not been briefed. Some might perceive this as M-NCPPC rushing through, with little input from residents, municipalities, civic associations and environmental groups, legislation that transfers power from our elected representatives to merit employees.
Additionally, this legislation is proposed by a planning agency that has failed to master the basics. They regularly produce staff reports late, provide inadequate notice of hearings, make half-hearted attempts at public outreach and are not responsive to public input or requests. The agency is often disconnected from the communities and taxpayers they serve.
For many residents, M-NCPPC is simply not an agency that has earned their trust. When you look around the county, the organization’s product has been less than stellar. Dotting all their Is and crossing all their Ts on such routine matters is essential prior to expanding the agency’s powers.
While form-based code may be an excellent tool in high-density areas and has been successful in other jurisdictions, notably on Arlington’s Columbia Pike, this legislation is an attempt to resolve problems that are largely attributable to Prince George’s County’s planning priorities, process and follow-through. Until our legislators, M-NCPPC and the county address these larger systemic problems, we need to think long and hard about ceding more authority to the planning staff at the Maryland National Park & Planning Commission.
In the next days we expect to provide more information on the details of the legislation, form-based code and questions you should be asking of council members. In the meantime we hope you will set aside 30 minutes and look around the Mixed-use Zone site, reviewing the presentations and definitions. If you are concerned, like we are, that this legislation is premature and requires careful exmaination, please let your council member know now.