Before Bremante Bryant and his wife, Lorna Gross, signed a contract for their four-bedroom house in the Lakeview section of Prince George's County two years ago, they did what most careful home buyers do.
They checked with the county government to make sure they knew what might be built in their new neighborhood. According to county planners, the available land was zoned for up to 160 townhouses.
"We feel as if we have been deceived," said Bremante Bryant, who thought land near his home was zoned for townhouses. Instead, it is to be retail.
(Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
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Or so the couple thought. Then one day last year, Bryant drove past a sign heralding the 400,000-square-foot Vista Gardens Marketplace. A site less than two football fields from his property was earmarked not for townhouses, but for a Home Depot, Target and Shoppers Food Warehouse.
Bryant and Gross are among an increasing number of Prince George's residents who are learning the hard way about a little-known County Council legislative device: the zoning text amendment. It allows developers and property owners to secure zoning changes with little or no public participation, bypassing what are often lengthy negotiations and contentious hearings with neighborhood groups.
County records show that last year, 29 of the 117 pieces of legislation considered by the council were zoning text amendments. Eighteen were enacted. In 2000, text amendments accounted for 11 of 98 measures.
Other jurisdictions in the Washington area use the device but to a lesser extent. Charles County has considered six text amendments in the past two years, approving two. Before placing a hold on new amendments in March, when it began to review the entire zoning code, Anne Arundel County considered about a dozen a year, many of them to fix technical problems.
Montgomery County considers about 30 text amendments a year but generally avoids measures that would create higher-density development. Not so in Prince George's. It was a text amendment that paved the way for FedEx Field in Landover.
Bryant objects to what he calls a backdoor approach to zoning. "What do we need with another KFC or Shoppers Food Warehouse?" he asked, adding that he counts at least 14 strip malls within six miles of his home. "We feel as if we have been deceived in some ways."
He and members of his homeowners association have raised money for a court challenge to the constitutionality of the council's action.
In Prince George's, the usual procedure for amending a zoning ordinance involves a series of quasi-judicial hearings before the county planning board and the council (sitting as the District Council). Property owners must prove that there was a mistake in the county's master plan or convince officials that changes in the character of a neighborhood justify rezoning.
Also, residents near the site in question must be notified by certified mail about the hearings and receive information about the location and use of the property.
Text amendments, however, move through the system on a much faster track. There is a public hearing before the council, but residents receive no personal advance notice. It means that the measures are often discussed with little or no public participation.
All it usually takes to get a text amendment before the council is an interested developer and a willing council member.
In the case of Vista Gardens, the Michael Cos., one of the county's leading developers of commercial real estate, asked council member David Harrington (D-Bladensburg) to sponsor the measure. It was passed in November 2003 by a unanimous vote -- one of 13 text amendments to pass that year.