JUDGING BY THE uproar from real estate developers, you might think that Prince George's County lawmakers declared a moratorium on all new residential construction last week by voting to link project approvals to certain standards for fire and police response times. The greater likelihood is that the impact of the new policy -- which is due to expire after about 19 months -- will be slight. County officials estimate that the law could end up blocking construction of 60 to 100 houses in the next year, most if not all of them in the rural tier along the county's southern and eastern rims, where fire and police stations are sparse. That would amount to a 3 to 5 percent reduction in new residential construction -- hardly the cataclysm that developers have done their best to portray.
In fact, several thousand building permits have been issued countywide and remain outstanding, and that planned construction is still in the pipeline, untouched by the County Council's 7-0 vote last Tuesday. Very few of those new houses would be in the rural tier, which comprises about a third of Prince George's land mass but just 1 percent of its population, and that's a good thing; Montgomery and Fairfax counties have preserved large swaths of relatively rural land to safeguard both the environment and a pleasant quality of life, and Prince George's is entitled to do so as well. We supported a recent effort by the Council to limit home construction in the rural tier to 1 percent of the county total (it is currently closer to 4 percent). That effort was unsuccessful, but this new law may accomplish approximately the same thing by different means.
The means themselves are worth scrutiny, because they are unusual. It is common enough for local jurisdictions to limit development in areas without adequate water and sewer infrastructure, or to make developers help pay for such pipes if they want to proceed with their projects. But it is somewhat novel to make new home-building contingent on the provision of adequate fire, police and emergency medical services. In fact, fire, police and emergency services are a basic obligation of local government, and the county should do everything possible to improve inadequate response times. County officials say their goal is to do just that, and County Executive Jack B. Johnson has embarked on an ambitious program to beef up the police department. That's a step in the right direction, and so is the Council's goal of keeping the rural tier relatively rural while concentrating on revitalizing older urban areas and developing underutilized parcels around Metro stations and the Capital Beltway.