The Prince George's County Council's decision last week to ban home building until police and fire departments meet new performance standards is the latest turn in an escalating struggle over who will control land use policy: a newly aggressive council or the politically powerful development community.
Tensions between elected officials and real estate interests are not unusual. And although the council remains largely supportive of development, last week's action was a dramatic, and unorthodox, attempt by members to leverage power in a county where builders have long enjoyed political dominance.
"This council has been relatively unusual in its desire to hold more of the authority and is being very, very assertive in gathering more power around zoning measures," said Peter A. Shapiro, a former council member and chairman. When it comes to development, "the pendulum is swinging more toward the council, reversing a trend of the previous decade."
Developers have reacted to the legislation with alarm, saying it will send mixed signals to developers looking at the county.
"We have major concerns that this is going to have consequences that they are not ready for," said F. Hamer Campbell Jr., who represents the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association.
At issue is how a county in which close to one-third of the land remains undeveloped will grow. Planners generally divide Prince George's into three regions: urban areas within the Capital Beltway, including Capitol Heights and Seat Pleasant; the northern and central suburbs, including Bowie and Laurel; and the largely undeveloped rural southern tier.
As available land in such places as Montgomery County grows scarce and more costly, builders have looked increasingly to Prince George's, especially its rural tier, which stretches roughly from parts of Upper Marlboro to the Charles and Calvert County lines.
Last year, 3.3 percent of the county's growth occurred in that area, up from 1.3 percent in 1998. Although the percentages seem paltry, they reflect a marked increase in construction activity.
In 2003, 69 houses were completed in the rural tier, according to Faroll Hamer, head of development review for the county. In October alone, the county received 133 housing permit applications.
"That's a huge spike," she said. "That indicates that [builders] will be marketing the consumers and lobbying the politicians harder to move on those permits," Hamer said.
Council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie), sponsor of the bill passed last week, said the county needs to slow the pace of building while it considers a new long-range plan.
"Before we have this land rushed to development, we need to have requirements to build," Peters said. "We have some of the last batch of land in the metro area, and before it all gets developed and it gets out of control, we want to put regulations in place."
Peters and other council members say they are concerned that the pace of development is compromising public safety. With most fire and rescue services located in the county's urban areas, rural tier residents say they have sometimes had long waits -- occasionally hours -- for police response.
Under Peters's bill, a plan for residential construction must pass an "adequate facilities test," which means public safety officials must show that the average response times for the site meet specific targets: 25 minutes for non-emergency police calls; 10 minutes for emergency calls; eight minutes for fire engines in the rural tier (six minutes outside); and 10 minutes for advanced life support.
Vernon Herron, the county's public safety director, said the fire department is not far off the averages required under the bill. For example, he said, fire engines reach homes within 8 minutes 46 seconds. Paramedics answer calls in an average time of 11 minutes 36 seconds. Calls for basic life support are being met within 9 minutes 7 seconds. The bill sets the maximum at 8 minutes.
In addition to slowing development, Peters and other backers of the bill hope to use it to force County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) to address police and fire staffing issues. The Prince George's police force, which has an authorized strength of 1,420 officers, is down to about 1,350. The bill requires the department to be at full strength by December 2006. If not, housing plans will not be approved. The fire department faces similar requirements.
"With the growth in the county, we did not keep up with adequate firefighting and paramedics," Herron said. "With more resources, firefighters and facilities, we won't be spread so thin."
Peters's bill is unusual in several respects. Many counties in Maryland and jurisdictions across the country tie residential construction to improvements in road and school capacity by imposing impact fees -- money developers pay to finance new public works.
Stuart Meck, a senior research fellow at the American Planning Association, said he knows of no other county that has linked approval of a project with staffing and response times.
Although some jurisdictions employ adequate public facilities tests, such studies usually deal with the location of the facilities, such as fire and police stations, and not the speed at which they can respond.
Meck said that developers will be put on hold because of something they have no control over.
"It does stop development in its tracks," he said. "They have to wait until the local government itself ups the staffing levels and locates the facilities close enough to meet the times."
Peters said he is not concerned about the unorthodox nature of the plan. "I'm just putting a law in place to protect the public," he said. "I felt where it falls, it falls." Peters and other members don't envision the bill as a permanent measure: It has a 2006 sunset provision.
The political push-and-pull on growth has intensified since the current council took office two years ago. A group of newcomers -- including Peters, Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), David Harrington (D-Bladensburg), Chairman Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills), Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) and Vice Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) -- has made land use issues a priority. They have had as many setbacks as victories, but they have also changed the tone and dynamic of the council.
In early 2003, members moved to strip Johnson of his power to appoint the county attorney, who is charged with monitoring zoning and land use issues. That summer, Harrington proposed sharply limiting home construction in the rural tier until a new master plan could be developed. Protests from developers killed the plan.
The group also tried last year to prevent the planning board from approving subdivisions until necessary road improvements were made. Johnson vetoed the measure.
Last fall, with support of other members, Peters held up approval of Karington, a $900 million Bowie residential and office development, because of concerns about road congestion and school crowding. The council approved the plan in early 2004 based on a commitment from the developers -- Ken and Gary Michael and Gary Murray -- to find and renovate a building suitable for an additional school.
In April, council member Marilynn Bland (D-Clinton) exercised a privilege of council members and placed a hold on at least 15 projects in her district, which takes in most of the rural tier. She backed off the stance a couple of months later.
This fall, developers responded. Two leading Prince George's builders, Ken Michael and Patrick Ricker, funded a petition drive for a ballot issue to add two at-large seats to the council. Opponents called it a blatant attempt by real estate interests to remake the council into a more compliant body by adding members who would have to mount expensive countywide campaigns, increasing their dependence on donations from developers. The ballot issue failed.
A new level of tension emerged this month when sources confirmed that the FBI was investigating the relationship between developers and council members in Prince George's. The specifics of the probe are not known.