A headline on a Metro article Sunday about the National Harbor resort in Prince George's County misstated the status of the project. The development has been approved for construction and continues to move forward amid a disagreement between county leaders and environmentalists. (Published 12/07/1999)

The opposition to the proposed National Harbor resort in Prince George's County might seem rather ordinary. Opponents say they are worried about the environment and traffic congestion.

But what have been otherwise predictable issues, heard many times on other projects, have been overtaken in this debate by charges from project supporters that the opponents are motivated by racism. And elitism.

Their accusations have created an unusual dispute in which Alexandria's history--stretching to Colonial times--and the image of that city, and of Virginia, have become part of the give-and-take for a project proposed on the other side of the Potomac River.

Maryland and county leaders have blasted opponents from Virginia for trying to stop the development, a 534-acre shopping, dining and entertainment complex with hotels, offices and a waterfront promenade modeled after Baltimore's Inner Harbor. They pointed to the Alexandria shoreline and the centuries of development that have taken place there as proof that what has been good for Virginia should also be good for Maryland.

"Looking across the river at all of Virginia's waterfront, we find it unacceptable that people are trying to tell us that we shouldn't have waterfront development," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.). "It's elitist. It's racist. It just doesn't make any sense."

Virginia opponents have countered that the fight has nothing to do with geography or about their own development. They say the real issues are being ignored because Prince George's County is too eager for development of any kind and its leaders too quick to inject race into the debate.

The tensions surfaced three years ago as the project was making its way through the county review process. At public hearings, nonresidents of the county who voiced concerns about the project were sometimes booed.

When a federal review process opened the debate, inviting broader participation by critics, Prince George's leaders argued the oversight was unnecessary because it allowed outsiders--particularly environmentalists--to dictate what kind of development the county could have.

The issue has been further complicated by racial demographics. Prince George's County is a majority-black suburb whose residents have long complained of racial redlining by retailers and developers. For many, the National Harbor development was proof the county had arrived and would be taken seriously.

Steven Peterson, project manager for National Harbor, declined to comment, saying it was inappropriate for the Virginia-based Peterson Cos. to get involved in the dispute.

A meeting last month between county leaders and environmentalists did not result in a compromise, which would have been largely symbolic anyway. Before it recessed last month, Congress removed the federal oversight that had been the last hurdle faced by National Harbor developer Milton V. Peterson. Opponents of the resort had been using that review process to try to stop the project.

But the hard feelings have remained and threaten to persist in regional discussions about what should be done about the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Prince George's County leaders mostly support the widening of the bridge to accommodate 12 lanes of traffic. Alexandria environmentalists prefer a mass transit alternative.

In a state of the county address a few weeks ago, Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) accused the opposition of "sabotage." He said Virginia residents and environmentalists are interfering in the advancement of the majority-black county, calling the opponents "people who never cared about Prince George's County before."

Those kinds of accusations have angered Virginia environmentalists and residents who oppose National Harbor.

"They are saying that we are racist, that we don't want to see the African American community succeed," said Andrew Macdonald, director of the Virginia-based Coastal Plain Environmental Council.

"That's the underlying message being sold," said Macdonald, who is white. "It's absolutely false, and it's racist in its own way."

Joy M. Oakes, a regional director of the Sierra Club, said she is "saddened that the issue of Maryland versus Virginia has been raised and the issue of race has been raised."

Oakes attended the meeting with Maryland leaders but declined to discuss what was said.

Stewart Schwartz, director of the District-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, which has opposed the size and location of the resort proposal, said the two jurisdictions are linked by mutual interests.

"There are those who might like to paint the debate as between Maryland and Virginia," he said. "That's totally off the mark. We are linked by traffic, traffic, traffic."

Environmentalists would prefer to see the resort moved to downtown Oxon Hill or to an existing community that could eventually be linked by mass transit.

But Wynn said such proposals are unrealistic and would delay the project even longer. The site has been slated for development since the 1980s. A previous developer ran out of money before he could build his proposed residential and commercial project.

Olatunde Babayale, a Fort Washington civic leader who supports National Harbor, said the Virginia opponents are simply trying to prevent Prince George's County from having what it is due.

"When they built up Alexandria, Virginia, did they ask our opinion in Prince George's County?" he asked. "No. Every day that goes by, Prince George's County is lagging behind the surrounding counties as far as economic development is concerned."

David G. Speck (D), an Alexandria City Council member, said both sides of the river should work on developing a traffic plan that could accommodate the National Harbor development.

"I have no standing to say I object to something happening in Prince George's County," Speck said. "If it's done right, it could be a benefit to the region."

But the underlying debate bothers him, he said.

"What we're dealing with right now is people standing on each side of the river pointing fingers at each other," he said. "But that doesn't solve anything."