The Mattawoman New Town, firmly rejected by the Prince George's County Council's unanimous vote this week, may yet be resurrected by a company that hopes to make a big profit from the idea and by council members and planners who see the new town concept as the only answer to suburban sprawl.
Caught in the swirl of pre-election politics and organized citizen opposition unparalleled in the memory of councilmembers, the proposal became a curse on those who supported it. Late night phone calls and thinly veiled threats became common tactics used by those who wanted to defeat the issue.
And although the council's decision was looked upon as a victory by some southern Prince George's county residents who wanted the proposal defeated, William Beckett, attorney for the Washington Gas Light Company which planned to develop the new town south of the junction of Routes 301 and 5, said his client still has several options to "keep the new town idea alive."
Given a quieter political climate anticipated next year when at least three members of the council will be novices to the Mattawoman debates (three current council members are not running for reelection), the major WGL option - to seek individual zoning changes for each part of the new town project - may succeed.
Observers said this week that legally the WGL has a very good case on which to base the zoning applications the company needs to build a town of 6,000 homes, an office complex and retail stores.
Certainly, those same observers said, the political climate will be different.
"It would have been easier politically not to vote on this issue at all before the election," said council member Francis Francois, "but we chose not to do that."
Council member Samuel Bogley, a candidate for lieutanant governor on a ticket with former state transportation secretary Harry Hughes, told the assembled crowd of Brandywine/Mattawoman residents at this week's council session he had to "take personal offense to some of the tactics taken by the opposition in the WGL case." Considered to be the swing vote in earlier votes on the project, Bogley said later he was offered "a lot of carrots" for his vote, "carrots like lawn parties and candidates forums for our campaign."
But, Bogley said, it was not all carrots. He said during the past few months he had been beseiged by phone calls from members of adjacent communities trying to persuade him to vote against the issue. "One man tracked me down all over the state (during the campaign) and even called Hughes (Bogley's running mate) and talked to him about the issue."
Political nerves have been irritated so much on this issue that one council member accused another of "taking a free ride" on the Mattawoman vote after the project had already been defeated.
"You know," Bogley said, "I've even been told by a council member to just let the thing die."
In 1977, only a few people came to Upper Marlboro to testify in opposition to the new town proposal as the zoning cases involving the Penney-Ward mall application, the Washingtion Gas-Light application, and two other zoning changes putting commerical and industrial zoning on nearby acreage were studied.
The four would have been the core of the Mattawoman proposal. Only the mall application was approved and the other three were delayed until the zoning could be discussed this year along with the entire zoning framework of the Brandywine, Mattawoman and Cedarville areas.
But as the first public discussion of Mattawoman began in the spring, a full-scale campaign was mounted by residents of the Brandywine area. From that time on, hearings and work sessions on the new town proposal became shouting matches and filibusters for and against Mattawoman. The discussions grew more bitter with each meeting as residents threatened council members with their vote as well as their voice.
Opponents of the town said the traffic would exceed the road systems, said that pollution, crime and inadequate sewer facilities would result from a new town of 25,000 residents.
But in private conversations in the hallways of the County Administration Building, another issue came to light.
"They might have said "Keep Brandywine Green," Francois said, "but that is not the color they meant."
"They were afraid that the new town would be a magnet for blacks fleeing Washington," Bogley said, "They has been the major underlying issue here."
Bogley said the project, which would have high density apartments and some low income housing to comply with VA regulations, would actually be a place for "affordable housing for people now living inside our beltway areas."
"But some were afraid, and they were not saying it publically but privately, that the character of the neighborhood would change," Bogley said. "For some people, that change would mean blacks, for some it would mean low income whites with a lot of children in tow."
The area is now patched with black and white residential communities. But the black families who live here are "old-time residents. They are a part of this place," said one woman. "Cityfolk are different."
Urbanization may have been a major factor in arousing public sentiment against the new town proposal, but many said the seeds of dissent were sown by Washington Gas Light itself.
Since the late '50s and early '60s when the WGL began buying land over a potential underground gas storage area, residents of the area said they have felt tricked by the utility company.
"I never thought they had any intention to store gas there," said Mrs. Anthony Verge, a Clinton Acres resident in nearby Brandywine. Verge's family has owned land in the area for 200 years and Verge said her uncle was involved in the gas company's take-over of nearly 2,500 acres years ago. "They sold us out in the '50s and they'd do it again if they had the chance. We just aren't going to let them have the chance."
"Brandywine has always been passed over by everyone," said Walter Meinhardt recently. A second generation resident, Meinhardt received the industrial zoning he requested in the recent council decision. "We are stuck between Clinton and Waldorf and if no homes are built here, it will just make traffic more difficult out there. We need the housing in here to make this work."
"We had the chance to change the patterns of development here, to bring about a fresh new approach to planning," said council member Francis White as the final vote on the issue was made this week. "We could have brought an end to suburban sprawl."