Townhouse bill arouses suspicion in Prince George's

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Prince George's County Council is considering a bill that would allow developers to dramatically increase the number of townhouses in new projects without resubmitting their overall plans to zoning officials.

Some residents complain that the proposal is being rushed to benefit one developer. A council committee is scheduled to review the bill on Wednesday and hopes to get final passage before the end of the month, when the council will hold its last session. The majority of the council's members will leave office in January.

"They obviously do not want public input," said Jacqueline Grazette, who lives near the site of Karington, a massive project proposed near the intersection of Routes 301 and 214 in Bowie that would benefit from the legislation.

The bill would alter the description of multifamily dwellings to include townhouses, as well as apartments. It would also allow a developer to ask the District Council, which is the County Council when it hears zoning cases, for permission to change the number of townhouses in a project without redoing the entire process.

The bill does not specifically mention Karington, a multimillion-dollar, mixed-use development, but the measure was drafted with the project in mind.

Karington, which is scheduled to break ground next year, was introduced to the council more than seven years ago by real estate developer Ken Michael and entrepreneur Gary S. Murray.

At the time, the developers said Karington would consist of two luxury hotels, a conference center, homes with prices starting at $500,000, $1,800-a-month apartments, specialty stores, offices, restaurants, a private school and a 25-acre lake.

But the 362-acre project didn't get off the ground because of legal wrangling between Michael and Murray. Now Michael has a new partner, the Lansdowne Development Group, which recently completed the Lansdowne Town Center in Loudoun County and is ready to move forward with the Karington plan.

Kevin J. Kennedy Jr., vice president of the development division of Michael's NAI Michael Companies, said in an e-mail that the timing of the legislation "is purely related to the timing of the deal with Lansdowne and is unrelated to the timing of the elections and the new council coming on board."

Council member Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie), who is running for reelection, said she introduced the bill to improve economic development in the county, increase the tax base and promote homeownership.

Kennedy and Turner said representatives from Lansdowne asked for the change because more townhouses would improve the value of the project. Kennedy said Karington is working on a deal with Lansdowne to purchase and build the residential portion.

But Turner said the bill will affect not only Karington but other planned projects, including Konterra, a 2,200-acre mixed-use development along the Interstate 95 corridor in Laurel.

"We want to encourage homeownership, rather than people renting," she said.

Grazette, who is a member of the citizens advisory group working with the developer, said the current council should not consider legislation with such far-reaching effects.

"The process has deteriorated," she said. "The developer is dictating the action that the council member should take."

Lansdowne asked for the flexibility based on its experience in other locales, Kennedy said. He said the legislation would allow the developer to make the substitutions without having to restart the approval process.

But some residents are concerned that the measure appears to be on a fast track.

"Why all of a sudden is there a great big rush?" asked Eve Zindorf, a member of the Karington Advisory Board, which is supposed to be alerted when the developer wants to make substantial changes to the project. Members of the board say they were given little notice about community meetings, the first of which took place just after Labor Day.

Under the current plan, Karington would have about 1,300 units: 170 single-family homes, 275 townhouses, and 850 apartments and condominiums. It is unclear how many apartments would be replaced by townhouses if the legislation were approved, Kennedy said. The developers will offer specifics when they submit a detailed site plan.

"If we had to start from square one, we would lose Lansdowne, and the project would be stalled indefinitely, if not killed outright," he said.

Grazette predicts that Karington will place additional burdens on the surrounding roads and school system. She notes that the construction of a major project far from rail transit goes against a renewed effort in the county to develop around Metro stations.

Prince George's has to consider growth in a more thoughtful way, she said.

"This is not just NIMBY" - not in my back yard - Grazette said.

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