Prince George's County Council member Douglas J.J. Peters heard the complaints at community meetings, and he read them in the torrent of e-mails to his office.
"My car got broken into, and it took 40 minutes for the police to arrive," he said, describing how the stories usually began. "My car was stolen, and no one came for an hour."
The grievances led Peters (D-Bowie) to successfully propose legislation last year. It required county police and fire departments to show that they could reach proposed new housing sites in a timely manner and with enough manpower. If they could not, the housing plans would be denied.
But the story of Peters's legislation took a sharp turn last week, when the council found itself facing the prospect of losing money from developers to improve emergency response times unless it backed off the law's requirements.
So, in a 6 to 3 vote, the council lengthened the required response times and allowed developers to pay a fee if they could not meet the standards. Under this approach, a developer could, for example, build a fire station or a police substation or pay the mitigation fee instead.
Critics see it as a clear victory for development interests. Others argue that it could provide the county with the money it needs to build new fire stations and police substations and buy equipment.
"I really see mitigation as a way of helping areas where we've already developed and there is a need for better response times," said council member David Harrington (D-Cheverly).
Peters's original legislation required that police emergencies be answered within 10 minutes on average and routine calls within 25 minutes. It set a countywide response time of 10 minutes for advanced life support. Fire engines and ambulances had eight minutes to reach new subdivisions in the county's rural tier. For other parts of the county, the standard was set at six minutes.
Late last year, developers warned that the measure, if passed, would result in a de facto moratorium on home building in the county. And after six months on the books, those predictions were confirmed: None of the 23 new plans for residential subdivisions that came before county officials could meet the standards.
An additional 13 plans, representing 1,039 homes, were either withdrawn or never submitted.
Peters and other council members said they had expected the law to slow growth in southern Prince George's, which is what they wanted. They also sought to steer builders to redevelopment opportunities in the county's older communities.
But something else was happening. Even projects in denser, more populated areas of the county had trouble passing the test. One proposed development in University Park, which would have sat within a mile of two fire stations, couldn't meet the standards.
What Peters and fire officials apparently overlooked was that when an engine company closest to the new housing is on another call, a fire company based farther away might have to respond, lengthening the average response time.
The original law was unorthodox in several respects.
Many governments across the country charge developers impact fees that help pay for new schools, roads and other infrastructure needed to support new neighborhoods. Few, if any, jurisdictions link approval of a project to police and fire response times.
Prince George's charges builders $12,000 per home to underwrite school construction, a provision that brings in about $25 million a year. But until last week, it required no such fee for public safety investments.
Watching from the sidelines this year, members of the Prince George's state Senate delegation decided to get involved. A bill passed by the House delegation called for a $6,000 surcharge on each new home in certain less-developed parts of the county and $2,000 for homes in the more established communities. The county stood to gain an estimated $12 million annually.
Developers lobbied the senators. Led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), the delegation amended the legislation to require that the county loosen the adequate facilities test as a condition of receiving the surcharge revenue.
"This was never designed to be a zoning moratorium," Peters said last week after voting with the council majority. "It was designed to provide public safety to current and future residents."