Developer Bob Kaufman looks out proudly over the Northridge community in Prince George's County, talks of the kudos it gets for environmental quality, and says red tape is killing this type of project.
"It's a prime example of how to do it right -- and we'll never do it again. It's too complicated to build it anymore, at least in Prince George's County," said Kaufman, national vice president of Michael T. Rose Consulting Inc., a development consulting affiliate of the Michael T. Rose Cos. residential real estate business in Laurel. Local builders and developers point to government regulations as one of their biggest headaches and a major source of delays, particularly in Prince George's County, where they say the government exercises more oversight in design than most area jurisdictions. They have to get approval for even small changes that deviate from the standard, down to the shape of the windows.
The county requires detailed site plans for much of its new housing, including multifamily dwellings, town houses and single-family homes in subdivisions where developers are allowed more units in exchange for more open space. These plans are reviewed for architectural design, landscaping, topography, storm water management and parking.
The plans can be challenged by neighbors and taken to a public hearing, which can add months to the time it takes to get permits and thus push up the price of housing, according to builders.
The idea was to improve the quality of housing and to generate more upscale, single-family detached homes. The industry says it isn't working out that way.
"It doesn't allow us to do the custom items we would like to do," said Jeffrey Caruso, president of Crofton-based Caruso Homes, which currently has five projects in Prince George's. "They have added so much regulation that they have scared out some of the best builders."
County officials acknowledge that the type and style of new housing are more strongly controlled in Prince George's than in other areas but say there is a reason for that.
"Most government regulations are a response to a problem," said Faroll Hamer, chief of the Prince George's County Planning Department's development review division. Builders in the county used to produce small, low-quality units with no windows on the end walls, he said. "That's why the need for architectural review sprang up."
"The whole principle is [about] raising the bar" for builders, said Sam Wynkoop, director of the Prince George's Department of Environmental Resources, noting that "new homeowners might say we should be tougher on them."
A common complaint from builders is the sheer number of government agencies that get involved: the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the Prince George's County Planning Board, the county departments of Environmental Resources and Public Works and Transportation, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the state soil conservation agency and the Prince George's County Council itself.
"You are constantly going back and forth among government agencies," said developer and builder Michael T. Rose of building in the Washington suburbs. "The time that it takes to process is extremely expensive.`
"On a typical house, there might be 30 different inspections," Caruso said. "I have people who just run permits, period, because it's such a complicated process."
It's taken a year to get approval for a gazebo at the entrance to one of his projects in Upper Marlboro, Caruso said, and the company is not sure it wants to add the gazebo now that most of the houses are finished.
The Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association estimated several years ago that regulation in Prince George's County added more than 30 percent to the cost of housing there, or about $34,000 on an average sales price of $139,000 in 1993.
The Rose company acquired the land in Bowie for Northridge in 1982 and 1983 and broke ground in 1988 after a rezoning, according to the developer. The first home was completed in 1990. The project is in its final stages, with a few more lots still to be sold and built on.
The length of time the project took was largely a result of trying to make it more architecturally diverse, more attractive and more environmentally sound, Kaufman said. His company's proposal involved increasing the number of homes it could build, but also adding a number of amenities, such as a park, a clubhouse and a lake.
The Rose company needed government permission to make guardrails from wood and stone rather than concrete and metal, to use narrower roads and less clearing around houses to save trees, to preserve trees on traffic islands and to have more attractive stop signs than the norm, Kaufman said. The project used grass swales for storm drainage rather than the standard curb-and-gutter approach, again needing special consideration.
To create a lake rather than a dry pond for drainage required permission from local, state and federal agencies, he added. In the end, the development was profitable, even if it did take longer than the developer wanted.
Wynkoop said his department does its best to streamline the process for home builders and to coordinate with other agencies. Still, he said, the government should consider changes that would help inspire innovation. "We need to be sensitive to the complaints [builders] raise about the process -- and make corrections."
Reluctant to offend publicly those who regulate them, several builders were quick to say that the local governments are filled with competent, well-intentioned people. It's the system, they say, the multiple jurisdictions -- in short, the red tape.
"All these laws are good intentions," said Kaufman. "But they ended up in these quagmires, these confusions of cross purposes."
Michael T. Rose Cos.
Regulators: Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Prince George's County Planning Board, Prince George's departments of Environmental Resources and Public Works and Transportation, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, Maryland soil conservation agency and Prince George's County Council