The Prince George's County Council yesterday eased restrictions it imposed seven months ago that effectively halted approval of plans for new home construction.
The original measure, passed in November, made construction contingent on county police and fire departments meeting specific standards for staffing and response time. The unusual approach was an attempt to ensure that the pace of development did not compromise public safety. It required that calls for police emergencies and advanced life support be answered in 10 minutes. Fire and ambulance services were given eight minutes in the county's rural areas and six minutes elsewhere.
Six months after the law took effect, however, none of the 23 plans for new residential subdivisions that had come before the county fell within the new response times. The building industry, warning that the legislation could curtail development in southern Prince George's, where most of the county's undeveloped land is located, pressed the council to amend the bill. State lawmakers, urged on by builders, passed legislation that council members said left them no choice but to act.
The measure, approved yesterday by a 6 to 3 vote, lengthens the acceptable response times. It also provides a way for developers whose subdivisions fall outside those standards to buy their way out of the requirement by paying for improved services. Developers could, for example, build a fire station or pay a fee.
The legislation comes as counties across the region contend with a range of issues spawned by rapid growth. Montgomery County officials have imposed a freeze on issuance of building permits after receiving evidence of widespread building code violations in Clarksburg. In Howard County, residents concerned about preserving the rural character of the area have organized with new vigor to oppose plans for construction.
The council's actions left many residents, who applauded last year's bill, disappointed at what they saw as a retreat.
"It really is a developers' bill," said Kelly Canavan, a civic activist from Accokeek in southern Prince George's. "With the [buyout provision], it basically takes out all the safety measures."
Mike Hethmon of Croom, also in the rural part of the county, said last year's law was a "step in the right direction . . . that offered a creative way of dealing with development."
News that the county's seven-month-old law was altered left many in the building industry elated.
"Hopefully, we can get back to business," said William Chesley of W.F. Chesley Real Estate, a land development and construction firm.
Signs across the county advertising homes in new subdivisions suggest that development has hardly slowed down. But the projects now under construction were in the regulatory pipeline long before last year's law went into effect Dec. 23.
Council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie), sponsor of the original and amended bills, said relaxing response times was the only way the county could receive money from a development surcharge imposed this year by state legislators.
The new state law set a $6,000 surcharge, to be paid by builders, on each new home in certain less-developed parts of the county. Builders also will pay $2,000 for each new unit in the county's older, denser communities. For the county to collect the money, the new state law says the fire department should be given seven minutes' travel time. The previous county standard -- eight minutes to rural areas and six minutes elsewhere -- was more stringent. It was defined as the time from when the call came in to when services arrived at the scene.
Voting for the amended law were Peters, Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) and council members William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), David Harrington (D-Cheverly) and Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant).
Vice Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) and council members Marilynn Bland (D-Clinton) and Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills) opposed it.
Dernoga said the new bill was a watered-down version of the original, forced on the council by the county's state delegation. He said last year's legislation proved that proximity to fire stations would not improve the county's public safety services. Several projects that were just minutes away from fire stations failed the test.
"Facilities aren't the issue, at least not the main issue," Dernoga said. "The bigger issue is manpower."
Peters said he believes that the county is further along than it was two years ago when the council began wrestling with the issue, noting that the county's police staffing level will reach 1,420 by the end of the year and the fire department will be at full strength at 695.