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Prince George's Restricts Growth

Emergency Services Standards Stricter

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2004; Page A01

The Prince George's County Council, looking for ways to slow the pace of development, voted yesterday to allow residential construction only if police and fire departments meet certain standards for staffing and emergency response times.

The measure, passed 7 to 0, is intended to ensure that the county's growth does not compromise public safety. Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) was ill and missed the vote; another seat will be filled in January.

Douglas Peters sponsored the council's bill.

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The measure's approval comes as the council continues to explore ways to put the brakes on building while it settles on an overall growth policy for the county.

Debate over growth in Prince George's has long centered on schools and the problem of crowding. In recent years, however, residents have increasingly raised concerns about how additional homes will affect emergency services.

In 2003, a Washington Post sampling of 142 projects recommended for approval by the county planning staff in 2001-02 showed that nine flunked the adequate public facilities test for travel time by fire, ambulance and paramedic services. Fifty-six fell short in at least one category.

Local governments in the Washington area use various methods to determine whether new developments will be adequately covered by emergency services. Prince George's officials say that they are, as far as they know, the only one to employ a public facilities test.

Developers and landowners yesterday criticized the legislation as ill-considered, unfair and a de facto moratorium on residential construction in certain areas, particularly the county's southern tier. Although still largely rural, building there is accelerating, comprising as much as 4 to 5 percent of the county's growth, officials said.

Builders said the bill introduces uncertainty about the county as a place to do business.

"Problems with response times exist already and will not be solved by stopping development," said F. Hamer Campbell Jr., a legislative liaison for the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association.

Council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie), the bill's sponsor, said it is long overdue.

"I know there's a lot of discussion about certainty in the development community," Peters said. "But we want certainty in our community. When we go out and see our constituents, they want to know why there is continued building of new homes and why the response times are getting higher and higher. This bill addresses that."

Last year, the council passed a bill that would have prevented the planning board from approving subdivisions until necessary road improvements were made.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) vetoed the measure, saying it would also affect commercial development. The legislation approved yesterday excludes commercial and industrial projects, and Johnson said yesterday that he will sign it.

Debate over the issue is likely to continue in the General Assembly next year. A bill sponsored by Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Greenbelt) would impose a surcharge of $8,000 per unit on developers to finance additional police and fire protection for new housing.

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