Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of retail square footage proposed in the plan. This version has been updated.
The two sides stood ready for battle. But instead of duking it out over a controversial development that would include Prince George’s County’s first Whole Foods market, the combatants sat for more than four hours of debate over whether the matter could even be heard.
In eight years as a County Council member, William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) said he had never seen anything like April 11. As the matter prepares to come up again before the District Council on Monday, residents and officials are still marveling at the spectacle of it all.
County officials have embarked on an aggressive push to bring high-end retail to Prince George’s. The hope is that a Cafritz family proposal to build a mixed-use development in Riverdale Park could lure other much-needed retail to the county. But for some, that hearing was an illustration of how the process can be confusing for developers and the communities affected by their proposals.
“I was surprised,” Riverdale Park Mayor Vernon Archer said. “Not that we didn’t finish, but that Wednesday was as difficult and unproductive as it was.”
Added John Tabori, mayor of neighboring University Park: “When I walked into that meeting, I had zero sense that that massive explosion of confusion was going to occur.”
The District Council, the name the County Council takes when it hears matters relating to development, has held two public hearings on the Cafritz proposal this month but has taken no public testimony.
Given the size of the project — and that it may go into an area populated by people active in civic affairs — nothing about the effort to develop 36 acres of wooded property on Route 1 north of East-West Highway was going to be easy. But a multitude of factors have complicated the approval process.
Part of the difficulty is that this is the first time a developer has attempted to rezone land in Prince George’s set aside for single-family residential homes into a mixed-use town center zone.
A spokesman for the Cafrtiz family said the plans call for the construction of 995 units of multi-family housing, a 120-room hotel, approximately 22,000 square feet of office space and 168,000 square feet of retail. The ultimate square footage could be more or less. A resolution passed by the planning board in February, indicates the amount of retail and “flex” space could range between 134,560 to 201,840 square feet, while office space would range between 17,600 to 26,400 square feet.
If built, the development would be one of the largest infill projects in the county.
Attorneys for the two sides have come up with vastly different interpretations of how the Planning Board and District Council are supposed to proceed. People’s Zoning Counsel Stan D. Brown, whose job is to ensure hearing records are accurate, said the Planning Board did not meet the 105-day deadline that was required to approve the project. He also said the Planning Board erred by placing limits on public testimony during the multiple days of hearings that were held before the project was approved.
But attorneys for the Planning Board and the Cafritz family said they are confident the process they followed is sound.
Because of the legal tussling, the District Council delayed the hearing until Monday. At least 17 people have signed up to testify. When they convene, it will be for a proceeding known as an evidentiary hearing. People testifying on the matter will have three minutes to speak, but they can be cross-examined for an unlimited amount of time by other parties involved in the matter.
This is only the second time in recent history that the county has held such a proceeding. The last evidentiary hearing was in 1996, when the council was deciding whether to push forward with construction of a stadium for the Washington Redskins. It lasted 10 days. The project was ultimately approved. The hearing on the Cafritz project is also expected to last several days.
The development has strong backing from County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who hopes it will prove that high-end retail can thrive in the county. But a well-organized group of residents oppose the project because they fear it would overwhelm roads and schools and strain other services. Council members are barred from commenting on the matter because it is still moving through the process, a county spokesman said.
Members of the business community said what has happened with the Cafritz proposal is another example of the difficulties developers face in trying to navigate the system — but that this particular case probably won’t deter others seeking to work in the county.
“Trying to find your way through the maze to get to where you can actually develop something has become such a horrific undertaking,” said Bill Chesley, president of W.F. Chesley Real Estate, who is not connected to the project. “It’s not particularly the fault of the existing people on the council or Planning Board — or at the state or county level. It’s something that has evolved over the years.”
“This is a complex issue, and it’s hard to single out one project and say its emblematic of the entire system,” said Jim Estepp, president and chief executive of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable.
Developers and members of the business community credit Baker and the council with efforts to try to streamline the system.
For their part, representatives of the family said the Cafritzes remain committed to building the development. If they win approval, the Cafritzes hope to break ground on the project in early 2013.
“You come in knowing that it’s going to have its challenges, but hopefully in the long run it’s going to be worth it,” said Chip Reed, attorney for the Cafritz family.