In yesterday's edition, a story on the planned development of Smoot Bay stated incorrectly that the wife of developer James H. Burch is a stockholder in the operation.
For years, entrepreneurs had eyed the verdant Potomac River bank just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge as ripe for development. But proposal after proposal fell victim to a small band of citizen activists determined to maintain their rustic semi-rural environment near the Beltway and Indian Head Highway, 15 minutes from downtown Washington.
But last week, James H. Burch, a 40-year-old land developer from Fairfax, succeeded where others had failed when the Prince George's County Council unanimously approved his $550 million, 440-acre "Bay of the Americas" project.
The planned commercial, residential and recreational development, is to be built over and around an excavated gravel pit known as Smoot Bay, and to include offices, town houses, slips for 1,000 boats, a conference center, hotels, nightclubs and shops built on pavilions over the water. Burch hopes to start work this fall on 300,000 square feet of office space, a 400-slip marina and town house villas.
Opponents, fearing local streets will be clogged with traffic and a pristine environment spoiled, plan a court challenge, but Burch's success so far illustrates how quickly he learned the wants and the ways of Prince George's.
Above all, he appealed to the county's chauvinism, promising his project would turn around its blue-collar image.
He hired a politically well-connected zoning lawyer, teamed up with a well-known local builder and relentlessly courted officials, citizens, businessmen, politicians and an array of special interest groups, including minority firms, to whom Burch has pledged 15 percent of the work.
"I was until recently the new guy on the block," said Burch. "Now, I'm integrated thoroughly into the community."
During the 1960s, thousands of apartment units were built and the county was tainted by zoning scandals. There were indictments for bribery and perjury. A county commissioner, a zoning lawyer and a developer received prison sentences and fines, and charter reforms were enacted to prevent future abuses.
Now, nearly two decades later, the notion persists among elected officials that private interests are often tied to the public good in Prince George's. Zoning lawyers routinely draft legislation for council members to sponsor. The chairman of the Planning Board, Charles A. Dukes Jr., who voted for the Smoot Bay project, is the head of the chamber of commerce, president and chief executive officer of a large savings and loan association and unabashedly pro-development.
Burch's entry three years ago to what he would later call the Bay of Americas was through the widow of Lewis Egerton Smoot, whose sand and gravel company dominated construction in the Washington area for decades.
From Smoot's widow, Burch bought 40 acres in Charles County and learned that Smoot Bay and the surrounding shoreline was for sale.
From Philip Hogue, former head of the Prince George's Planning Board and a Montgomery County realtor who was involved in the sale of the Smoot property, Burch learned that there were zoning problems and that other tracts were needed for access to the bay. Owner of a key 92-acre tract was Homer Gudelsky, whose family had been pioneers Washington shopping centers.
Hogue introduced Burch to V. Paul Zanecki, Gudelsky's lawyer, who was then trying to subdivide the land into half-acre lots, resigned that nothing else could be done with the property because of citizen opposition.
Zanecki liked Burch's grandiose scheme but was skeptical. Nonetheless, Gudelsky agreed to the sale of his property should the deal go through, and Burch also retained Zanecki as his lawyer.
They decided they needed a third tract to allow traffic to enter their project without going through local streets. Another contingency contract was arranged, this time with a group of Virginians, represented by Hunter B. Andrews, majority leader of the state Senate.
But assembling the land was only a start. Since the 1960s, developers had tried to build in the area. The builders of Tantallon, a nearby upper-income subdivision, had failed; so too did backers of a Disneyland-type theme park that was to have been known as "Heritage Gardens." A proposal to extend I-295 along the river also failed, defeated by residents who banded together as the Friends of Oxon Hill Association, the nucleus of Burch's opposition.
Not all nearby neighbors were opposed. One who wasn't was Frank Lucente, who built and lives in the River Bend subdivision overlooking Smoot Bay. Lucente, whose family has built nearly 3,000 homes in Prince George's, met Burch at a civic association meeting at which the developer spoke. Lucente expressed interest in being part of the project.
"He was our primary guy in the community," said Burch.
Last year, George Dunn Jr. and Michael R. Garrett, representing the third generation in established local construction firms, came aboard. More recently, Joseph Della Ratta, a Baltimore-Washington developer, joined the group. They and Burch, his wife and father-in-law are the stockholders in the project, the first phase of which is expected to cost $16 million, largely for land acquisition. Later, Burch said, he intends to bring in other investors.
Expecting opposition to the project, Zanecki drafted special legislation that would allow faster approval of waterfront development. The 1982 bill, tailor-made for Burch, was introduced by Gerard McDonough, who became Zanecki's law partner after losing his seat on the County Council last fall.
The legislation produced an uproar and was withdrawn before a vote. Zanecki saw another avenue, however, in a new zoning category available near major transportation routes such as the Beltway. The "mixed-use transportation" zoning was adopted in November, 1981, at the behest of the chamber of commerce, according to County Executive Parris Glendening, then the council member who sponsored the legislation. He said the so-called "M-X-T" zone--"it sounds like a missile"--was designed to smooth the path for high-quality development.
The Planning Board gave its approval in November, despite reservations by its staff, and after a lively hearing, the council's 9-to-0 approval came last week.
Before the council vote, supporters circulated petitions saying the project would bring more jobs, lower taxes and "some needed class to our county." One Oxon Hill couple wrote to county officials on its behalf:
"Prince George's needs an uplift badly. A project such as Smoot Bay would spur a higher income clientele here. We don't need a low-cost bedroom society. Now, we shop in Virginia as we are afraid of being shot in the back if we patronize any of the nearby shopping centers. We need this project. . . . Otherwise, we stable homeowners are ready to wave the white flag and leave. This project is the only hope . . . "
In seeking support, Lucente wrote fellow Oxon Hill residents that the alternative to Smoot Bay was lower-priced development that would bring "every kind of outsider through our neighborhoods." Lucente's reference to the possibility of "another park like Fort Washington Park," which is largely patronized on on weekends by blacks from the District, prompted charges of racial scare tactics. Burch's forces denied the charges.
Opponents gathered nearly 1,000 signatures on petitions that emphasized the project's potential damage to the environment, particularly traffic clogging neighborhood streets. Burch said he had his secretary photograph a petitioner at an Oxon Hill shopping center to show how her sign misrepresented the facts. The woman, however, saw it as harassment.
Marie Lee, the subject of the snapshot, is an elderly woman who lives about 100 yards from Smoot Bay. Since working against the project, she said, she has twice been shot at while sitting at home in the evening. Burch blames "some punk kids" and says that neither he nor any of his associates are in any way responsible.
Burch says he wants to peacefully co-exist with his critics, who have raised legal questions about the county's power to rezone the bottom of Smoot Bay, property they say belongs to the state. They have also questioned the broad new zoning category, applied here for the first time, and threatened a court challenge to block the project.
The Bay of the Americas project has other hurdles yet to overcome. In approving the project last week, the County Council said Burch must build an access road to the shore through land presently owned by the National Park Service. That agency has expressed reservations about the project's environmental impact.
Transfer of the 67-acre tract, left over from Beltway construction, has already been the subject of a congressional bill that died in the last session. Burch and county officials have lobbied hard for the transfer to the Prince George's Planning Commission, which could, in turn, allow the road to be built through the land. Strongly backing the transfer are Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), County Executive Glendening and Planning Board Chairman Dukes.
Meanwhile, Burch says there's a waiting list of 650 for marina slips, another of 155 names for town houses and 15 hotel companies interested in the two planned hotel sites. Since last Monday's council action, he has received hundreds of phone calls from well-wishers and contract-seekers at his office in Frank Lucente's Oxon Hill Law Building.
From his elevated office view, Burch can see the riverside tract, Virginia, the Washington Monument and, on a clear day, all the way across the District to the Mormon Temple in Montgomery County. This is his market, he says, the affluent spectrum of metropolitan Washington.
"Frankly, we're not marketing Prince George's," he said. "We're marketing waterfront, Beltway, access to downtown. It would fail if we appealed only to the immediate area."