Prince George’s Planning Board split on Bowie resident’s project

July 24, 2013

The Prince George’s County Planning Board could not agree Thursday on a subdivision case that has stirred the Bowie community and revived the city’s desire to have authority over land-use decisions.

After an almost four-hour public hearing, the board remained split on whether to approve the petition from Bowie resident Sean Yerby to divide his property into three lots and build two new homes in a half-century-old community.

Yerby’s neighbors have overwhelmingly spoken in opposition to the plan, concerned that new construction would ruin the character of their neighborhood. The Bowie planning staff opposes the plan. The City Council voted against it last month.

But the city has no legal authority over land-use issues, and the county’s planning department staff recommended approval of Yerby’s proposal. After the public hearing Thursday, the four planning board members present could not reach a consensus, with two in favor and two against the plan. The board’s lack of action resulted in approval, an outcome that upset residents and city leaders.

The plan to subdivide the property has become an emotional subject in the city of 56,000. Many longtime residents say they want to preserve the original character of their community, which is part of nearly 9,000 houses built in the 1960s by William J. Levitt, the father of modern suburbia.

The case also has brought to light Bowie’s long-standing disagreements with the county over land-use decisions.

“We do not have the say in what goes on in our neighborhood, what can or cannot be built,” said Diane Polangin, a Bowie City Council member. “People go to the county and say, ‘You know I want to put this up,’ and the county would approve it even if Bowie doesn’t approve it.”

County planners said Thursday that Yerby’s proposal for the 0.74-acre site conforms with the Prince George’s master plan and zoning requirements and that it would maintain the low-to-moderate density of the neighborhood. The project’s engineer, Greg Benfield, said at a public hearing in Bowie last month that the new lots would remain consistent with the neighborhood, where the size of lots varies.

“We are not proposing an apartment complex. We are proposing two single-family dwellings that will be conformable with what is there,” Benfield said.

Bowie City Planner Frank Stevens said the proposal is not compatible with the city’s vision for that neighborhood, which he said has not seen major structural changes since it was established in the early 1960s.

“We moved here because the houses were not built on top of each other,” resident Charlie Rogers told board members Thursday.

Helen Krulik, who lives three doors away from Yerby, said she and her family moved to the neighborhood 51 years ago because of its large yards. Although the city and county have developed over the decades, she said, the community maintains a country feel, with large spaces between homes.

“This will change the tranquility, the integrity, the character of our neighborhood,” said Krulik, 78.

But Planning Board Chairman Elizabeth M. Hewlett, who lives in Bowie, said the board had no grounds to deny the applicant’s request.

“He can do what he wishes with his property,” said Hewlett. “Right now, the zone is what it is . . . I can’t in good conscience go against what I know the law of the land is in this county.”

The decision — or lack thereof — provides another reason for the city to seek more authority over land-use decisions, Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson said.

“We are the largest city in the state of Maryland that is treated this way,” Robinson said. He has lobbied in Annapolis for the city to have its own zoning authority since he was first elected mayor in 1998. “The municipalities in Montgomery County make these decisions on their own.”

Bowie city officials say they are considering appealing the case. But on Thursday afternoon, it was unclear to Robinson whether an appeal was possible, because the case was decided without a vote.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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