A controversial proposal to turn a scarred, 2,000-acre moonscape of sand and gravel pits in northern Prince George's County into a minicity of 20,000 residents faces its final hurdle tonight when the County Council weighs rezoning for the ambitious plan.
Called Konterra, it would dwarf Tysons II -- the $550 million, 107-acre commercial development approved last week by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors -- and, in its developer's expectations, would provide jobs for 40,000 workers when completed.
If it gets the go-ahead, the community of office parks, high-technology manufacturing space, retail shops and houses, located on either side of Rte. I-95 between Laurel and Beltsville, would be the largest rezoning application ever granted by the Prince George's County Council.
The hearing tonight is the final stage in a complicated zoning process that started a year ago and has yielded three contradictory recommendations at lower levels. The council is likely to make its decision tonight or tomorrow.
The decision could be appealed to the state Circuit Court, but the court could overturn the council only if it finds the decision clearly erroneous.
Developer Kingdon Gould Jr., a former ambassador to the Netherlands and great-great-grandson of railroad baron Jay Gould, is seeking zoning changes that would allow him to build Konterra in a choice location now largely slated for single-family homes on half-acre lots.
The property, which includes a small slice of Montgomery County, is the largest undeveloped parcel remaining along the Baltimore-Washington corridor in Prince George's County.
In addition to its two-mile frontage along I-95, Konterra would be bisected by the proposed Inter-County Connector, a 20-mile, four-lane expressway linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties. According to state plans, the Inter-County Connector would meet with I-95 at Konterra, making the location even more attractive.
If the council grants the rezoning, construction is expected to start in 1986 and stretch into the next century, finishing as late as 2020. Gould said he has not figured out the total cost.
"This is the logical place for this kind of development," Gould said last week as he surveyed the property, much of which has been transformed by decades of mining into a rough landscape of cliffs and craters reminiscent of the Western badlands. "You're not tearing up a beautiful piece of land," he said. "We'd be creating rather than destroying."
The land, formerly owned by the Contee Sand & Gravel Co. and still mined by Gould, would be developed over 25 to 35 years. Plans call for 8,000 residental units, most of them town houses and condominiums, nearly 9 million square feet of office space, almost 4 million square feet of manufacturing space, and 1.8 million square feet of retail space.
Another 310 acres would be set aside for "special use," such as headquarters for a major corporation, medical research complex or government facility, and more than 700 acres allocated to "green space," with bicycle and jogging paths, man-made ponds, tennis courts and swimming pools.
The ambitious rezoning application comes before the council after being denied in August by the county zoning hearing examiner, who termed the project "a complete disparagement" of the county's master plan for development. It would be out of place in the area, examiner Barry Cramp said in his report to the council.
Earlier, the County Planning Board had recommended that the County Council approve all but 274 acres of the development, overriding the advice of the planning staff, which had urged rejection of all but 488 acres. Gould, said Planning Board Chairman Charles A. Dukes Jr., "will do a project we'll be proud of."
The proposal has drawn mixed reaction from civic groups in the Beltsville-Laurel area. Some are unalterably opposed, arguing that a project on the scale proposed by Gould would create unbearable traffic problems, strain existing schools, police and other services, and destroy a life style they consider semirural -- despite the encroachment of development in recent years.
"With a rural setting, you just can't dump a mini-city in there," said Diane Sills, president of the South Laurel Recreation Council. "The roads can't handle it."
Other residents of the area, resigned to the idea that the well-situated property will eventually be developed, have decided that it is better that building be done under a comprehensive plan rather than piecemeal by a number of developers.
"We would love to see this area remain like it is for the next 25 or 100 years, but we feel that this is the next best thing," said Roy Wells, president of the Gunpowder Citizens Association.
Wells said his group wants Gould to build fewer town houses and increase the number of detached houses, to make the community more compatible with nearby neighborhoods of $100,000 houses on half-acre lots. Gould's current plans call for only 175 detached houses in the Prince George's portion of Konterra.
Opponents are also worried about Gould's request for "M-X-T" zoning -- which would allow a variety of uses on the tract, from residential housing to research laboratories to hotels -- for the bulk of the Konterra property
The "M-X-T" zone, Konterra critics warn, would give Gould virtually unbridled discretion to develop the property, leaving the county with no guarantees that Konterra will resemble Gould's current proposal when it is eventually developed.
The controversial zoning designation, created in 1981, has been approved for just one project, the 440-acre, $550 million Bay of the Americas waterfront development at Smoot Bay, near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Gould "just wants the right to build whatever he wants whenever he wants," said Walter H. Maloney Jr., a former county attorney who is the most vocal opponent of Konterra. "It's turning zoning over to the developer."
But Gould points out that the county would still retain control over the development because the County Planning Board must approve detailed plans at a later stage. "The zoning doesn't entitle you to build anything you want," he said. "It's not a blank check, by any manner or means."
Konterra, which has the backing of County Executive Parris N. Glendening, is expected to generate county tax revenues of about $600 million between 1986 and 2020, and state tax revenues of $830 million if the Inter-County Connector is built, according to Gould's estimates.
It is unclear what Konterra's fate will be before the County Council, which has been mixed recently in its approach to development, generally blocking new projects in the more rural southern half of the county but approving plans for the more-developed northern end, where Konterra is located.
"It is still touch and go," said Reginald Parks, legislative assistant to council member Frank Casula, who, as the representative from the Laurel area, is expected to play a key role in the outcome of the debate.
Parks said that Casula "kind of likes" Konterra. But, he said, the project would be "easier to swallow" if Gould were to substitute more detached housing for the proposed town houses and condominiums, agree to hold off on development until more roads have been built or expanded, and substitute specific rezoning requests for the "carte blanche" M-X-T plan.
Tonight's discussion, scheduled for three hours, is expected to be a heated one. Maloney and other opponents, who unsucessfully tried to have the hearing held in Laurel or Beltsville, have been calling local residents to round up opponents to attend the hearing.
Gould, in turn, has chartered a bus and is supplying free boxed dinners to Konterra supporters. He expects about 20 persons to ride the bus.
"We felt the least you could do, if someone was going to come to what would be for them a tedious meeting, was help them get there without having to be hungry," he explained.
Among those speaking in favor of Konterra tonight will be south Laurel resident G. William Troxler. "I think it's naive to believe that this acreage will not be developed sometime," Troxler said. "If it's done piecemeal, it's going to come out as a patchwork quilt and that won't be to the benefit of the county. We have the opportunity now to have one developer come in with the resources and, I think, the vision to develop it well."
Although Gould said he is optimistic about Konterra's chances for success, he said he will try again after the mandatory two-year waiting period if the proposal fails this time around