According to the Prince George's County land-use plan, the vacant lot near the Route 4 interchange in Upper Marlboro is designated for new office buildings. A developer instead envisions 100 condominiums.
Although the seven acres across from DuVal High School in Lanham also are zoned for offices, a group of builders has plans for senior citizens' apartments.
But changing the county zoning map can be a long, costly and contentious process, with angry community groups, public hearings and appeals. To avoid nasty fights, and still take advantage of the county's large parcels of undeveloped land, developers are relying with increasing frequency on a legal tool called the zoning text amendment. It allows the County Council, without the usual advance notice required by zoning laws, to approve projects even though they don't conform to the county's plan.
Four years ago, 11 of the 98 measures that County Council members introduced were zoning amendments. Since January, 10 of 34 have been text amendments.
"It's a disturbing phenomena," said Fern Piret, director of the county's planning department. "The use of text amendments definitely appears to be more widespread today."
She said builders and council members should be able to take advantage of the market.
"We want people to make money," Piret said, adding that the county often ends up benefiting from additional tax dollars. "But they should not be doing text amendments to rezone properties. You're cutting out the community."
Text amendments are used in other jurisdictions. Montgomery County, for example, considers about 30 each year.
When Federal Realty wanted to increase the height of buildings in Bethesda, the County Council took up legislation to permit the change. A text amendment was introduced to allow residential units on top of buildings in heavy commercial zones, such as on Rockville Pike.
But Ralph Wilson, a member of the council staff in Montgomery, said the county generally steers away from considering text amendments that would create higher density in a zone.
"If you want something for higher density, you should file an application with the hearing examiner to get the property rezoned," Wilson said.
Many text amendments seek only minor changes in the use of a property. A gas station owner, for example, might ask to build a mini-market on his property. One measure this year permits headstones to be sold at a location near a cemetery.
But Piret said that in recent years, the method has effectively become a tool for what she calls "spot zoning" across the county.
The Prince George's planning staff opposed the text amendment that council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) introduced for Heritage Homes, which is interested in building the senior apartments in Lanham. The staff argued that only a regular amendment of the zoning map could ensure due process.
Hendershot said senior housing on the land is legitimate. "It's been zoned C-O (commercial-office) for years, and the land has just been sitting there vacant," Hendershot said. "Right now, we're not getting anything out of it."
Hendershot, who was dubbed "Text Amendment Tom" by a community activist a couple of years ago, said the amendments are "worthwhile and in the public interest."
Council member Marilynn Bland (D-Clinton) introduced one of the most recent text amendments considered by the council. Her measure would allow 400 condominiums on an eight-acre parcel near the Branch Avenue Metro station. County maps call for a shopping center to be built on the property.
William Chesley, a developer interested in the Upper Marlboro property, created a firestorm over a text amendment he recently sought to increase the density on a property near a horse farm.
Chesley asked council member David Harrington (D-Bladensburg) to introduce a zoning text amendment to allow him to proceed with the condominium project. He also had another amendment that would allow him to build townhouses on a property adjacent to the empty lot.
Harrington, who introduced the measures because he said he was told that residents wanted the development, pulled both bills yesterday. "There seems to be community concerns about them, and we should have an opportunity to hear their concerns and lay out the full plan of the project," he said.
Harrington added that he liked the projects in part because Chesley included minorities as part of his development team.
Harrington, who in the past has criticized white developers for not making blacks a part of their projects, said Chesley's team is diverse. And that made the projects even more acceptable.
Residents, many of whom live in houses on at least one acre, not only are upset about the plans but also are in an uproar over the process.
"I just want them to play by the rules," said Dorothy Troutman, a community activist who owns a horse farm about a mile from the proposed development.
Troutman said she is not against change in her bucolic neighborhood. She just wants fair warning and a chance to have a say in what the changes are.
In order to get a zoning map amendment, a developer must prove there has been a mistake in the map or a change in character of the area. Lawyers say it's a difficult test to pass.
But just because it's difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't take place, said many residents who pushed Harrington to withdraw the bills.
"They are trying to circumvent the zoning process," Troutman said.