In a surprise victory for developer Kingdon Gould, a Prince George's County Circuit Court judge has ordered the County Council to consider giving Gould permission to build on an additional 969 acres of his controversial Konterra minicity, twice the acreage already approved.
Judge James Magruder Rea's eight-page decision criticized the council's reasoning when it denied mixed-use zoning for about two-thirds of the Konterra proposal and said that the council should reconsider the case. Council members said they were caught off guard by the opinion on the 1,458-acre project that will straddle I-95 near Laurel. It is planned to include residential, commercial and office buildings, and developers have said that the 30-year project could grow to 2,000 acres.
Lawyers familiar with the case said yesterday that courts rarely overturn a legislative zoning decision, and have never done so in such a large case. County officials and local opponents of the Konterra development both said they are likely to appeal different parts of Rea's opinion.
The Konterra project has been one of the most controversial developments in the county in recent years, and the council rezoning was an attempt to placate both the developer and area residents unhappy with the proposal.
One year ago last week, the council voted unanimously to rezone a 488-acre section and a 35-acre parcel of Gould's property, much of it land scarred by sand and gravel mining operations, so that Gould's proposal would conform with the zoning. At the same time, they denied a rezoning request for 969.9 other acres. Both Gould and the local opponents filed suit against the decision.
"In denying the 969.9-acre request, the council did not put forth any valid reasons for such denial," according to Rea's opinion, which was released Monday. "Logically they could not have done so and granted the 488 acres. The council's only apparent reason was that the whole matter was big and that they were hesitant on acting on something that is big."
JoAnn T. Bell, one of nine council members who voted in favor of the limited rezoning, said she was "really surprised" by Rea's conclusions.
Bell said that she felt that granting partial approval was the best approach for the largest such request in county history because "if you get down the road and things are not falling in place there are checks and balances."
And council member Frank Casula, who represents the Laurel area and negotiated much of the compromise, said the opinion should be appealed. "What can I say?" he added. "It's a judge making a decision. It's got to be argued out in legal channels."
Rea also upheld the legality of the four-year-old mixed-use zoning classification that Gould sought for the area. Community residents had challenged the classification in their suit as illegal because it allows several different land uses within a single zone.
Walter F. Maloney, a Beltsville resident who led the charge against the mixed-use zoning as a way to short-circuit Konterra, said Rea made "a bad decision."
Rea wrote that "the remedy sought by the opponents . . . is not the courts but the ballot box."
Glenn Harrell, the attorney for Gould, said he and his client are still studying the decision, "but are gratified by the judge's decision to support our arguments."