The Prince George's County Council voted last week to reverse itself and allow construction of a 35-acre office park on Oxon Hill Road near the site of the ambitious residential and commercial Bay of Americas development planned for Smoot Bay.
The 5-to-3 action, vigorously opposed by residents of the area, reversed a denial last July of developer Ronald Cohen's request to develop the property just south of the Capital Beltway between Oxon Hill Road and Indian Head Highway. Cohen's attorney argued essentially that his client had the right under county law to request zoning similar to a neighbor's.
The $1 billion, 485-acre Bay of Americas waterfront project south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, approved last year and scheduled for groundbreaking this year, was also approved by the council over the objections of some residents of the area. They contend that both projects will generate too much traffic and change the nature of their neighborhoods.
Several council members said last week that rezoning of the Cohen property, granted despite a contrary recommendation by associate county attorney Steven Gilbert, flouted county laws.
"There is no justification for the rezoning," said Council Chairman William Amonett. Under county law, such decisions may not be reconsidered unless the applicant can show that a mistake was made in the original decision-making process, he said, adding that the county office of law could not find a mistake.
However, Cohen's attorney, former County Council member Gerard McDonough, argued that his client's request was treated differently than a rezoning bid for a similar, 22-acre site just to the north. That site, owned by William Miller, was rezoned last year for industrial use.
McDonough said that because both the Cohen and Miller tracts are earmarked for employment use in the county's master plan, they should have received similar treatment.
But the state plans to purchase much of the Miller property to complete the extension of I-295, and the council knew when it rezoned the site that much of it would never actually be used for industry, Amonett said.
Council member Sue V. Mills, who also voted against the rezoning, agreed with Amonett.
"All we did when we rezoned the Miller tract for industrial use was line his pockets," because the value of the property increased once it was rezoned, she said.
"But at least we did not destroy the character of the neighborhood." Rezoning the Cohen property for industrial use, she said, might destroy "the residential character of that beautiful area."
Council member Richard Castaldi, who voted for the latest rezoning, disagreed, saying that the Cohen property would not be "comfortable for residential use because it is too close to the highway interchange. You are not going to build houses there."
McDonough, who also represents the Bay of Americas developers, said Cohen does not plan to develop the site for at least two years. By then, he maintained, the expanded Beltway interchange with I-295, Oxon Hill Road and Indian Head Highway should have greatly reduced traffic problems in the area