Southern Pr. George's Debates Development
By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page C01
For years, William Henson looked out the front door of his small white rancher with green shutters in Brandywine and saw nothing but woods across Dyson Road.
Now, Henson looks at $300,000 houses sprouting up on both sides of the two-lane road. Not far away, a sign heralds the Hamptons, where houses starting at $360,000 are coming soon. Not far from Dyson Road, the Ridges offers 64 houses with four bedrooms, open foyers and prices from $500,000.
Residents say this is the story of southern Prince George's County, where expansive parcels of land once home to farms and forest are being swallowed up by developers at an alarming rate.
"Everywhere you turn, houses are popping up, all these little McMansions," said Donna Hathaway Beck, a community activist who questions the rate of growth and for years has voiced concerns about the area's crowded schools. "South County -- it's the developers' mecca."
The high-velocity growth has sparked a vigorous debate in Prince George's over the future of South County. It is emerging as a battleground for elected officials and the industry's complex of real estate developers, zoning lawyers and lobbyists that typically dominates Prince George's politics.
Developers naturally see South County as one of the region's last great frontiers. Some members of the County Council would like to curb construction and redirect developers to revitalize older communities in Prince George's. County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) agrees that the south has grown too quickly but says he has not decided what the right balance of construction and land preservation is.
Much of what is happening in South County is attributable not to Johnson but to his predecessor, Wayne K. Curry (D). Curry said he always saw the southern portion of the county, which encompasses about 30 percent of land in Prince George's, as a last chance to "do it right."
Shortly after his 1994 election, Curry sent a message to developers that he was tired of Prince George's being the dumping ground for low-end housing. It started, he said, with the building boom of the 1960s, which resulted in a mass of garden apartments, most clustered inside the Capital Beltway. In the 1970s and '80s, developers built low-cost housing and tenants began to buy their first homes.
During those years, Democratic county executives Winfield M. Kelly Jr. (1974 to 1978) and Parris N. Glendening (1982 to 1994) pushed to bring upscale housing to the county. But little changed.
"We have a chance to get the best of everything with this huge block of land," said Curry, who toward the end of his term pushed for mansions along the Patuxent shoreline as a way to attract executives to live in the county.
M.H. Jim Estepp, president of the Greater Prince George's Business Roundtable and a former member of the County Council, said that with signs announcing $700,000 houses coming to Route 301 in Bowie, the county is beginning to see the fruits of some of the housing policies implemented during the Curry administration.
The question now is where the county, more specifically, South County, should go from here.
Council member Marilynn Bland (D-Clinton), who replaced a two-term Estepp in the District 9 seat, has said the rate of development needs to slow down.
In the past six months, she conducted what one developer called a "one-woman moratorium" on new construction projects in her district. Although she has since backed away somewhat, she said her concerns remain.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company