The Senate joined the House in voting yesterday to exempt the proposed National Harbor resort in Prince George's County from a protracted federal review process that could have required the developer to negotiate additional environmental protections for the $1 billion entertainment complex.
The measure--part of a massive $385 billion spending package that the president is expected to sign--makes it possible for the waterfront development to move forward under prior county approval without additional scrutiny from the 12-member National Capital Planning Commission. The action also removed the threat of environmental lawsuits related to the federal review.
The exemption vote was a major victory for developer Milton V. Peterson and for county and state leaders who are counting on National Harbor to be the economic engine that powers the county out of the shadows of its more prosperous neighbors.
Peterson has proposed to build a 534-acre resort with first-class hotels, movie theaters, offices, upscale shops, a marina and promenade modeled after the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and a gated entertainment complex that is projected to attract an estimated 12 million visitors a year. But he has yet to announce any deals involving the complex, and many details could change. The County Council exempted National Harbor from normal review procedures that would have required the developer to submit detailed site plans for approval. The council approved a conceptual plan for the resort last year.
"We're concerned that this [congressional] amendment will basically put it on the fast track and make it difficult to have any further citizen input into the review process," said Frank L. Fox, a spokesman for the Washington area Sierra Club. "There are certainly major environmental concerns we have that seemed to have been brushed aside by the county's rapid acceptance of the project."
Council member Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington), whose district includes the National Harbor property, said he also is uncomfortable that the county has so little control over what exactly the development will look like. "All we have is a concept and no details," Gourdine said. "They can build anything under the theme of waterfront entertainment. That's extremely broad."
County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) and Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) lobbied for the congressional maneuver, which was orchestrated by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). Supporters of the development viewed the federal oversight as an unnecessary intrusion into a local land-use matter.
"It's been absolutely shameful," said Prince George's County Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro). "No one else has to go through [the federal review process] to develop their natural resources and to create their land-use policies."
National Harbor spokesman Andre J. Gingles said the developer can proceed with design plans that had been put on hold while the federal commission debated restrictions on building height, open space and public access to the waterfront. Peterson has pledged to comply voluntarily with restrictions that the federal commission had placed on the property as part of a land swap between a former developer and the county.
Peterson agreed to make available to the public at least 60 percent of the shoreline property, provide a public-access easement for future development of the Potomac Heritage Trail and reserve 35 percent of the area near the waterfront for green space to preserve the view from the Virginia shore, according to legal documents.
Hoyer said he is confident that the environmental concerns have been addressed.
"We have provided for the project to go forward, [and] at the same time ensured all the environmental concerns were met," he said.
Construction of National Harbor is to begin in early 2002.
Gingles would not comment on prospective tenants but said negotiations are underway with companies that had been unwilling to commit while the project was under review.
The council specifically prohibited amusement or so-called thrill rides at National Harbor when it approved the conceptual site plans. Casinos and other gaming operations also are prohibited under the zoning ordinance.
The official World Wide Web site for the National Harbor resort (www.nationalharbor.com) describes the development as a "total waterfront entertainment experience, including luxurious hotel rooms, quality retail, a wonderful variety of restaurant choices and an array of entertainment elements." As a footnote, the Web site points out:
"Drawings and images are provided to broadly illustrate the general character and quality of the development rather than specific design elements. Elements of actual design (i.e., theme, elevations, features, materials, uses or configurations) ultimately created for National Harbor may be substantially different from the specific elements illustrated in these drawings and images."
Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.)--who represents parts of Prince George's and helped push for the amendment--said the community, which has overwhelmingly supported the project, will not accept anything less than a development with much-desired upscale retail and shopping.
"Clearly, there is a vision," Wynn said. "If the project begins to change from high-end to low-end there would be a major outcry and resistance. People have bought into a vision of upscale, and that's what the community expects."
CAPTION: The National Harbor is to include hotels, movie theaters, offices, upscale shops, a marina, promenade and entertainment complex.