Prince George’s county executive picks Betty Hewlett for key development post
By Miranda S. Spivack and Ovetta Wiggins,
Betty Hewlett, a development lawyer and former chairwoman of the Prince George’s County Planning Board, will be nominated by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III on Friday to take the panel’s reins again.
Hewlett, the first woman and first African American to chair the five-member board, recently stepped down as a Maryland representative to the Metro board. Her nomination is subject to approval by the County Council.
Baker is also poised to nominate former council member Dorothy F. Bailey (D) to replace Jesse Clark and A. Shuanise Washington (R) to replace Sylvester J. Vaughns on the Planning Board. Two other nominees will be sent to the council this summer as Baker, who took office in December, seeks to remake the board.
Baker confirmed the nominations Thursday evening after several inquiries by The Washington Post.
While Baker had quietly informed council members in recent days of his plans, reports of the nominations have been met with mixed reviews. Some have questioned whether Hewlett’s background as a development lawyer might affect her willingness to strictly regulate what often comes with development: traffic, storm-water management and increased density.
The Planning Board chairman, who earns $192,385, about $17,000 more than the county executive, can have substantial influence over how the county will look in the next 50 years. The board reviews residential and commercial development plans, which are then sent to the council for another look. Much of the detailed scrutiny of development review is done by planning staff members, whom Hewlett would supervise, along with the county Parks and Recreation Department. The agency has an annual budget of about $278 million.
“If [Baker] believes I have the skill set to help the county, I’d like to put those skills to use,” Hewlett said Thursday.
In 2003, then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) tried to oust Hewlett before her term was over, unsuccessfully pressing for legislation in Annapolis known as the “Betty bill” to end her tenure. And early last year, Johnson tried, again without success, to engineer the selection of a new Planning Board chairman, who would have served for four years after Johnson left office, denying his successor a chance to put his stamp on the agency.
Hewlett, who co-chaired Baker’s transition team on environment, transit and sustainability, has had a variety of experiences during her legal career and served previously as the Planning Board’s chief attorney. She is closely aligned with former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D), Baker’s transition chief, who is now a development lawyer.
The connections have sparked concerns from some county residents that the Baker administration, which is still being formed, looks at times like a new version of an old regime. Bailey, who served on the council when Curry was county executive, is also a close Curry ally.
Baker said Thursday that he had sought people with experience who could help him “turn things around and right the ship,” a veiled reference to Johnson’s recent guilty pleas to extortion and witness-tampering in a wide-ranging federal probe that included scrutiny of development deals.
Baker said his nominees will maintain integrity and transparency at the parks and planning agency “at a time when it is vitally important to show that. . . . I think we will be in good stead.”
Hewlett said she had tried “extraordinarily hard” to balance competing interests between the community and developers during her previous time on the board.
“I want to maintain the highest integrity,” she said. “I want to build on what my predecessor has done and what I did before.”
Baker has said that he wants to see the county encourage a mix of residential and commercial development that is walkable and near transit — in particular, close to the county’s underdeveloped Metro stations.
Hewlett has supported that type of development. In her Largo legal practice, which she would leave if her nomination is confirmed, she has also represented more traditional developers on projects that sometimes have caused heartburn in residential neighborhoods.
During Hewlett’s 10 years on the Planning Board, the panel approved thousands of housing units in traditional suburban settings that helped set the stage for what Baker has said is now an imbalance in the county’s tax base and development scheme. Baker has said he thinks that the county needs to expand its commercial property tax base to rectify its over-reliance on revenue from fluctuating residential property values.
Vaughns said he did not foresee Hewlett’s return.
“She has a great interest in this county moving forward,” Vaughns said. “I have no disappointment on my side.”
Hewlett’s nomination also will come at a time of tension between Baker and the County Council over his signature $50 million economic development fund. While the council said it wants to enhance the county’s efforts to expand its commercial tax base, it also has expressed concerns that the fund, as envisioned by Baker, would give him and future county executives carte blanche to hand out grants and loans to favored developers with limited council oversight.
The terms of the five current Planning Board members, including Chairman Samuel J. Parker Jr., have expired. Board members serve four-year terms and are paid $25,000 for the part-time post. The chairman’s position is considered full time.