Prince George's group asks judge to overturn zoning vote

The rezoning of rural areas in Prince George's County, including Hyde Field Airport, upsets some residents and environmentalists.
The rezoning of rural areas in Prince George's County, including Hyde Field Airport, upsets some residents and environmentalists. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009

A group of Prince George's County residents and environmentalists who fought legislation that will dramatically alter the landscape of the rural parts of the county by allowing strip malls and thousands of homes is asking a judge to overturn the District Council's vote.

The Accokeek, Mattawoman, Piscataway Creeks Communities Council filed a petition in October alleging that the District Council violated a Maryland Public Ethics Law when it approved the measure.

Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Michele D. Hotten is expected to hold a hearing Jan. 10 to decide whether a stay should be granted. Oral arguments have been set for March 18 to discuss the merits of the case.

The group says the District Council did not file affidavits regarding campaign contributions made by property owners who might benefit from zoning changes. The law requires property owners to disclose whether they have made campaign contributions to any member of the Prince George's County Council in the past 36 months. The County Council sits as the District Council when it hears zoning matters.

Kelly Canavan, president of the communities council, said her group was impelled to file the petition because of the "incredibly egregious" way the council handled the process and because of the wide-reaching impact the changes to the Subregion 5 master plans and sectional map amendments will have on rural parts of the county.

Council member Marilynn M. Bland (D-Clinton), the former chairman, pushed for amendments in September that would allow for the construction of a strip mall in Accokeek and the rezoning of Hyde Field Airport in Clinton for about 2,100 housing units and 300,000 square feet of retail. Residents protested the changes during a rally outside the County Administration Building, but the District Council approved the plan 6 to 3.

J. Carroll Holzer, an attorney for the residents, sent a letter to members of the County Council, warning them that they would be in violation of state ethics law if they voted on the resolution without filing the affidavits.

"We put them on notice and they ignored it," Holzer said.

"They made the process a total sham," Canavan said. "We just felt like enough's enough."

Steven M. Gilbert, an attorney for the District Council, said in court papers filed last month that the claims are baseless.

"They have given the court and the council no basis for an understanding of their theory that the ethics law was violated as to this or that property," Gilbert wrote. "They do not allege that any Subregion 5 property owner actually contributed to a council member's campaign fund in violation of the law."

A spokesperson for the county said the court filings were the District Council's comment on the case.

The legal challenge by the communities council comes as the District Council fends off another group of residents in Fairmount Heights and surrounding communities who sued the council for approving a zoning special exception that allows the construction of a concrete batching plant in their neighborhood. Both sides are waiting for a ruling in that case.

Subregion 5 covers 75 miles in the southwestern region of the county, running through Clinton, Accokeek, Piscataway, Tibbett and Brandywine. It is bounded by Andrews Air Force Base to the north and Charles County to the south.

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