In an effort to cash in on what some developers say is "the hottest piece of property in town," the city of New Carrollton is moving to annex the neighboring community of West Lanham Hills and the adjacent tax-rich Metro triangle property.
The site of a station that will serve both the Amtrak Metroliner and the soon-to-open New Carrollton Metro line, the approximately 263-acre triangle, bordered by I-495 and Rte. 50, will also house a multimillion-dollar industrial, commercial and hotel complex called Metro East.
Annexation eventually could provide almost $300,000 a year to the city in new tax revenues when the Metro East site is developed. Of this amount, an estimated $26,000 would come from West Lanham Hills.
Although Metro East developers oppose annexation, citizens of West Lanham Hills, an unincorporated residential area with 282 homes and a population of 1,184, are currently circulating a petition asking to become a part of New Carrollton.
At an emotion-charged City Council meeting last week, the New Carrollton mayor and council opened the way for annexation by unanimously adopting a resolution authorizing an advisory referendum on the proposal. However, the city cannot hold the referendum until it receives a petition requesting the annexation.
Passage of the referendum resolution would be an early step in an annexation process that began in February, when the city advisory planning committee proposed annexation of the 422 acres of adjacent land, according to city administrator John Brunner.
Mayor Jordan Harding and the five City Council members met with leaders of the West Lanham HIlls Citizens Association in March and authorized a survey of the "triangle and adjacent areas" after they received a favorable reception from the West Lanham Hills residents, according to Brunner. There are no residents in the triangle area, he noted.
After the council held two informational meetings on the proposed annexation earlier this month, West Lanham Hills citizens began circulating a petition for annexation.
Although the annexation wheels have just begun to turn, a struggle is already under way. Metro East developers and some New Carrollton residents oppose the move, while city officials and West Lanham Hills residents favor annexation.
"Annexation will give the City Council needed input and certain controls over an area that is going to impact very seriously on our community," said Harding, who is in his fifth term as mayor of the fifth largest city in Prince George's County.
"Obviously, the income from the annexed area would help ensure or stabilize the tax base and probably prevent any tax increase over the next five to 10 years. The entire area will probably bring into the coffers of the city somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000, with a projected expenditure of about $55,000."
In return for this tax money, developers argue, the Metro triangle will receive nothing.
"We're getting nothing for something, and they're getting something for nothing," claimed real estate developer Jimmy Rogers a broker for Metro East who owns property near the development project. "They haven't told me they can offer me anything. We have county police and all new streets, and on commercial property we have to take out our own trash.
"None of the traffic going into or out of the Metro East project has direct access to New Carrollton at all. In many ways we're entirely separate and apart from New Carrollton."
Shell Oil Company, which bought the industrial-zoned Metro East land last year for $3.8 million and is now selling finished lots, is awaiting a legal analysis of implications of annexation before they take a position, according to Shell's local attorney Russell Shipley.
"But I have a wonderment about the reason why the city wants to annex the Shell property, other than getting taxes that would amount to about 25 percent of their current operating budget," said Shipley, who noted that the city has not contacted anyone associated with Shell to discuss the possible annexation.
"Not that the city has any legal obligation to contact the property owners in an area to be annexed, but it's unusual that any municipality would initiate this annexation process unless they let the property owners know about it."
However, citizens of West Lanham Hills, who were treated to a thorough explanation of the proposed annexation, have expressed their interest in New Carrollton's promise of trash and snow removal, contract police, street repair, zoning control, participation in city activities and lower taxes, if the community were annexed.
"The neighborhood has been there for 40 years, and the county has not complemented us in any way," said Bronson Row, president of the West Lanham Hills Citizen's Association, who said his group has gathered about 70 percent of the signatures necessary to petition for annexation.
"We'll be strengthening ourselves in every way. They offer services like backyard pick-up of debris; we'll get possible street and sidewalk repairs and be involved in the city's beautification projects.
"And any unincorporated area is weak. It's a definite advantage to have a voice in government."
Some of Row's neighbors in New Carrollton said they were unhappy with the concept of an advisory referendum because it does not legally bind the council act in accordance with citizens' advice.
With an advisory referendum they can go up and do anything they want," noted Joseph Aukward, who is leading a petition drive to force the city to hold a binding referendum on the annexation question. "But a citizen's referendum follows the democratic process where they'd have to obey the wishes of the people.
"The trouble is the basic distrust here," said Aukward, pointing to a recent issue concerning expansion of a Safeway store in which he said a ballot containing both an advisory referendum and a citizen-initiated referendum totally confused voters.
"This is the biggest issue in 23 years, that could change the whole character from a residential community ringed by shopping centers to a little New York. It appeals to greed. We're going to get a lot of money out of this, and it's not all bad. But what I do want to see is a real democratic process."