DESPITE OCCASIONAL feuds and intemperate eruptions, land developers and politicians in Prince George's County have generally forged cooperative relations. But those have been strained lately. Some County Council members have tried to apply the brakes to what they believe is too swift development, especially in the rural tier of the county in the south and east; some developers have chafed at what they regard as unfair or arbitrary attempts to thwart or micromanage growth. One source of tension is proposed legislation by council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie) that would prohibit new construction in areas of the county where adequate police and fire protection is not in place. Another is the Prince George's zoning law "text amendment" process, whereby council members can hold up approval of large-scale building projects until developers make concessions. Some developers say they emerge from the bruising bargaining that attends this process feeling they have been shaken down. Some council members have been angered that certain developers financed an unsuccessful ballot initiative to expand the county council by adding two members elected at large -- who presumably would have been pro-development.
That's part of the backdrop against which it was revealed that the FBI has launched an investigation of relations between developers and council members. The focus of the investigation, reported last weekend by The Post's Eric Rich and Ovetta Wiggins, is murky. Council members insist they have not been contacted by the FBI. Agents were seeking a meeting with one developer, Kenneth H. Michael, whose projects, including a $900 million planned community in Bowie, are among the largest in the county. Mr. Michael, who helped finance the campaign to add at-large members to the council, is a prominent and powerful figure in the county, with decades of experience in development. In an environment in which rumors abound and guesses are more plentiful than facts, the FBI inquiry has touched off a serious case of the jitters in the halls of government.
There's no telling what the FBI investigation might uncover -- if anything. But it does present an opportunity for the county to reexamine the text amendment process, which encourages wheeling and dealing between developers and County Council members without public scrutiny. Unlike rezonings, which require extensive public notice and engender substantial input and testimony, text amendments are fashioned by lawyers operating in back rooms. Rezonings are falling out of favor in Prince George's because developers and council members found them too vulnerable to court challenges. But text amendments function in the absence of well-understood rules and are therefore susceptible to misunderstandings and abuse.
Alone among the Washington area's suburban jurisdictions, Prince George's still has large parcels of green fields along the Capital Beltway awaiting development. In determining the future of that land, clearer rules -- and greater public input -- would help ensure that developers and council members are playing on an even field.