The Prince George's County Planning Board said it was a bad idea. So did the planning staff, the county zoning hearing examiner, the county historical society, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and more than 70 residents of the surrounding area.
But the Prince George's County Council voted anyway earlier this month to transform a tract in the northern part of the county from a residentially zoned neighborhood to the site of an upscale shopping center to be built by Montgomery County developer Ted Lerner. A final vote is scheduled for Monday.
The project, to be known as Bell Station Shopping Center near Rtes. 450 and 193 in Glenn Dale, will be built on a rural, wooded, 30-acre site. It is slated to contain a six-screen movie theater, restaurant, drugstore, drive-in bank and "food bazaar."
The rezoning decision is an example of a pro-development philosophy that has taken hold among Prince George's County officials in recent years. That theory, vigorously backed by County Executive Parris Glendening, holds that new service-oriented industry will contribute to the county's tax base as well as its image.
The proponents of Bell Station, represented by Gerard McDonough, a former County Council member who is now a zoning lawyer, say that the county's 1980 amendment to the master plan always intended that such a center be built.
But area residents such as Doris Nebel and Sandy Rinck of the Glenn Dale Civic Association argue that the county is violating its own planning process by indulging in piecemeal rezoning of an area that was supposed to remain residential.
County zoning law provides that no changes can be made in county land use plans unless an applicant proves that there was an error made in the original decision or that there has been a substantial change in the character of the neighborhood since the land was zoned.
McDonough says that both things happened. The opening of the dual highway Rte. 193 has changed the neighborhood, he argues, making it ripe for development. He also argues that Prince George's should take advantage of a noted developer's willingness to come into the county.
"Certainly the kind of development he does is the kind of development the county is looking for," McDonough said. "He is one of the few developers who does not cut his product when he comes into Prince George's."
Lerner, who built Landover Mall and the new Greenbelt Hilton, recently purchased and will renovate the 2,899-unit Springhill Garden apartments in Greenbelt. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The Enterprise Road area, McDonough said, is well on its way to being developed as an area that could absorb "the upper-crust stuff" planned for the Bell Station development.
Six council members were swayed by the zoning and economic development arguments. Two, Richard J. Castaldi and Jo Ann T. Bell, were not.
Chairman William B. Amonett said he and others were convinced that if the council had all of the facts in 1980 that it has now, the intersection would have been zoned commercial originally.
"No one's going to waste that valuable corner on residential development," said McDonough, who as a member of the council in 1980 voted for the original zoning.
Bell, who represents the Glenn Dale area, calls the Lerner plan "a bad idea" that will open the other three corners of the intersection to similar development. Rezoning applications are pending before the council on each of those tracts.
"What it says to the citizens is we're not listening to you," she said of the council's decision to depart from the master plan.
The planners who advised the council to deny the rezoning application cited possible traffic and storm water runoff problems as well as its incompatibility with nearby historic sites.
The Prince George's Historical Society said that the project would destroy "one of the most beautiful unspoiled areas of our county."
Rinck, who bought a house in the Holmehurst subdivision less than half a mile from the shopping center site in April, said she and her family moved into their home assuming that the surrounding neighborhood would remain residential. Homes in the area, she said, range in price from $130,00 to $250,000.
When Rte. 193 opened last year, Rinck said she and her neighbors feared that commercial development would soon follow. "You get a major highway traffic route and someone tries to commercialize it," she said. "Prince George's County has a history of that."
Bell and Castaldi said they will try on Monday to have the final zoning decision delayed by earmarking it for a special needs study. "This is not just a neighborhood issue, a Glenn Dale issue," Castaldi said. "It's a county issue."