The Prince George's County Council is considering legislation that would dramatically slow the pace of home building in the southern end of the county by imposing a one-year cap on residential building permits in the largely rural area.
If passed, the package of bills would allow the county to grant 25 permits -- or about 1 percent of the total approved in by the county -- for one year.
"These bills will bring development in the rural part of the county under control while the council works out detailed land preservation policies," said council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), chairman of the council's Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee and a co-sponsor of the measures.
The measures are the latest sign of a concerted effort by the council to slow the rapid pace of development in Prince George's while it decides on the right balance of construction and land preservation.
Last month, council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie) introduced a bill to allow homes to be built only if police and fire departments meet specific benchmarks for staffing and response times. Peters and other council members are concerned that rapid development is overtaking the county's ability to provide basic services. Developers and members of the business community argued that the measure amounts to a moratorium on construction in the county's rural tier.
Yesterday's committee hearing on the building permit cap was moved from its regular room to the council chamber to accommodate an overflow crowd of developers, property owners, zoning lawyers and civic activists. They offered sharply differing views of Dernoga's measure, which also is sponsored by council members David Harrington (D-Bladensburg) and Marilynn Bland (D-Clinton), whose district takes in most of southern Prince George's. Bland created a controversy this year when she used her council privilege to hold up development projects in the southern tier. After a few months, she backed off.
Ingrid Turner of Turner & Associates, which has plans for executive-style housing in the rural tier, said the measures are essentially a moratorium that lasts 365 days.
"I have invested substantial money in the rural tier, and these bills would bankrupt me," Turner said.
But John Robinson, vice chairman of the county's Sierra Club, said the measure encourages smart growth.
"If you keep building in the rural tier, you won't be able to call it the rural tier because you will have filled it up with houses," Robinson said.
Farmers and property owners who said they had plans to sell their land called the measure onerous and unfair. The bill, they said, reduces their assets and retirement funds.
"I resent the fact that this bill would stop my children or grandchildren from building on this farm," said Mary Gardner, a widow who owns a large lot in Croom. "And I am upset that if I get sick I won't be able to sell a portion of my land to help pay for my care. We are being penalized."
A similar bill was put forward last year, but it never made it out of committee after builders balked at the idea.
The proposed cap of 25 permits represents 1 percent of the number of permits that are generally approved by the county each year -- about 2,500.
"I don't see this as a moratorium," Harrington said. "It's a slowdown."
Harrington said the council is trying to correct a problem that was not addressed in other areas of the county, where development spread without officials making certain that infrastructure needs were being met.
"Should we follow that same path in the rural tier?" Harrington said.
In other action, the committee voted yesterday, without debate, to approve an amendment to county zoning law that allows a developer to build 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. The county's planning department opposed the measure, arguing that the builder, Wood Partners, should seek a change in the county zoning map.