The Prince George's Planning Board has given its approval to the controversial Beech Tree development near Upper Marlboro, but with conditions that would limit the impact on already crowded schools.
The board's 4 to 0 vote Thursday means the developer, Houston-based Ryko, clears another hurdle and can proceed with its first 700 dwelling units--fewer than one-third of the 2,400 planned. They will be apartment condominiums, designed primarily for those 65 and older, and single-family homes priced at $300,000 and up.
Essentially, Ryko agreed not to build any less expensive single-family homes while enrollment at area schools is 130 percent or more over capacity.
"It's a great example of the developer and the community coming together and everybody benefits," said planning board Chairman Elizabeth M. Hewlett.
The reasoning is that seniors don't come with school-age children, and those able to pay a premium price for detached dwellings in the county won't have young children or won't be sending them to public schools.
"I think it's a good sign in which, for the first time, a builder seems to be working with the concerns of the school community," said Donna Hathaway Beck, a public schools activist. "Quite frankly, I consider it to be a major step forward."
So did Richard K. "Chip" Reed, the developer's attorney.
"We're pleased," he said, while acknowledging that pending or future legal appeals could delay or ultimately overturn last week's approval. "We can proceed until we're stopped."
But at least some residents of nearby Brock Hall, who also cite environmental concerns for their opposition to the 1,200-acre development east of their subdivision, are not happy.
"I was really shocked the planning board sat there and accepted that rationale, that in our county we can't have families with [young] children living in houses over $300,000," said Royanne Carney, of the East Branch Conservancy.
She said that while she recognized that the developer had made a concession on schools, she was still upset that the board approved Beech Tree plans to "disturb" 22 acres within the Patuxent River watershed, including 11 acres that would be completely cleared of trees.
"My impression is the applicant told them what they were gonna do, and they rubber-stamped it," Carney said.
Of the first 700 units, 240 would be condominiums and 458 single-family homes. The developer will be required to pay surcharges of $1,740 per single-family unit and $1,170 per condominium to help defray the construction costs of county schools and public facilities.
But of the $3 million the developer must pay on the first chunk of housing units, only a little more than $1 million would be specifically targeted for an elementary school on the Beech Tree tract, of a total single-school construction cost of $11 million or so.
Patuxent Elementary School, which is east of Route 301 and would otherwise serve Beech Tree, is already crowded.
"From a school activist's standpoint," Beck said, "if they sell $300,000 homes, and a majority of those people send their kids to private school, my county is not spending its tax money on those students. The pupil yield coming out of Beech Tree will be essentially mitigated with a base price of $300,000 per home."
Beech Tree--which is also to include a championship Greg Norman-designed golf course, a 33-acre lake, hiking tails and other amenities--is the latest version of plans that have been in the works under various owners for more than a decade. The site is east of Route 301 and south of Leland Road, just north of Upper Marlboro.
Australian golf pro Norman and three members of his design team walked the 238-acre course on Friday, the day after the planning board vote. William J. Anthony, Washington development director for Ryko, said he expects work on the 18-hole course to begin in January. He said a specific design plan for the first 128 building lots, to adjoin the golf course, will be filed with the county before then.
"We're kind of grinding forth," Anthony said. "We could start construction on first [home] lots next summer. Sometime late next year, we'll turn the [first completed] lots over to builders to build our model homes."