The Prince George's County Council will consider guidelines today that would allow development to move forward even if projects cannot ensure adequate fire and police protection required under a new law.
Approval of the guidelines would be the final step in a nearly six-month process to undo elements of a law passed last November that made home construction contingent on public safety standards and effectively halted plans for 1,400 houses.
The original legislation required that calls to police for advanced life support and other emergencies be answered within 10 minutes. Fire and ambulance services were given eight minutes in rural areas and six minutes elsewhere. If a subdivision did not meet the standards, the planning board was instructed not to approve it.
The council took the unusual approach of linking residential development to public safety benchmarks to ensure that the pace of development would not compromise fire and police protection. But the law essentially shut down the pipeline for development and, as a result, hampered the county's ability to pay for new officers, as well as fire and police stations, council members say.
"We're attempting to see how we can move things forward faster," said Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville). "We're trying to be able to put in facilities so we can have the necessary response times that citizens are looking for. We're trying to get ahead and, in some instances, catch up."
The new guidelines, which have been put on a legislative fast track, would allow developers whose subdivisions fall outside the standards to bypass the requirement by paying for improved services. In July, the council passed a bill that eased the restrictions for fire response. The new guidelines would ease the restrictions for police response, increasing the limit for emergency calls to 12 minutes and allowing developers to pay a fee of $3,780 per house that fails the police response standard and $1,320 for the fire standard.
Council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie) said yesterday that the guidelines would help the county improve public safety by making developers help pay for services. The county would expect to raise as much as $9 million a year from the fees.
"It's not perfect," he said. "But this allows us to put something on the table to work with."
The fee would be in addition to a surcharge approved by the state for each new residential development in the county. The state approved a $6,000 surcharge on each new home not in the county's older communities and $2,000 for each unit in more established areas. To add the surcharge, the county had to agree to ease the fire emergency response requirement to seven minutes of travel time. That doesn't count the call for service, which was the starting point for past requirements.
Some residents said they were disappointed with the county and state measures. They said the council is retreating from its earlier stance.
"It's putting residents at risk," said Charles Reilly, chairman of the Sierra Club of Prince George's County.
Reilly said he was especially upset over the council's apparent rush to get the legislation approved. The council added the measure to its agenda last Tuesday, then placed it on the agenda for a committee hearing the next day. Today's vote would mark final action.
"The process really threatens the trust citizens have in the council to allow them to have a voice," Reilly said.
Peters said the council's hand was forced.
"If we said no mitigation, we probably would have been sued, we probably would have lost and the General Assembly would have stepped in and taken away our adequate public facility rights," Peters said.
He said the council was "one vote away" from losing its ability to impose the test earlier this year when the county's Senate delegation considered the issue.