The Prince George's County Council, looking for ways to slow the pace of development, voted yesterday to allow residential construction only if police and fire departments meet certain standards for staffing and emergency response times.
The measure, passed 7 to 0, is intended to ensure that the county's growth does not compromise public safety. Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) was ill and missed the vote; another seat will be filled in January.
The measure's approval comes as the council continues to explore ways to put the brakes on building while it settles on an overall growth policy for the county.
Debate over growth in Prince George's has long centered on schools and the problem of crowding. In recent years, however, residents have increasingly raised concerns about how additional homes will affect emergency services.
In 2003, a Washington Post sampling of 142 projects recommended for approval by the county planning staff in 2001-02 showed that nine flunked the adequate public facilities test for travel time by fire, ambulance and paramedic services. Fifty-six fell short in at least one category.
Local governments in the Washington area use various methods to determine whether new developments will be adequately covered by emergency services. Prince George's officials say that they are, as far as they know, the only one to employ a public facilities test.
Developers and landowners yesterday criticized the legislation as ill-considered, unfair and a de facto moratorium on residential construction in certain areas, particularly the county's southern tier. Although still largely rural, building there is accelerating, comprising as much as 4 to 5 percent of the county's growth, officials said.
Builders said the bill introduces uncertainty about the county as a place to do business.
"Problems with response times exist already and will not be solved by stopping development," said F. Hamer Campbell Jr., a legislative liaison for the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association.
Council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie), the bill's sponsor, said it is long overdue.
"I know there's a lot of discussion about certainty in the development community," Peters said. "But we want certainty in our community. When we go out and see our constituents, they want to know why there is continued building of new homes and why the response times are getting higher and higher. This bill addresses that."
Last year, the council passed a bill that would have prevented the planning board from approving subdivisions until necessary road improvements were made.
County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) vetoed the measure, saying it would also affect commercial development. The legislation approved yesterday excludes commercial and industrial projects, and Johnson said yesterday that he will sign it.
Debate over the issue is likely to continue in the General Assembly next year. A bill sponsored by Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Greenbelt) would impose a surcharge of $8,000 per unit on developers to finance additional police and fire protection for new housing.
Supporters of the council bill are concerned that the proposal by Ross, who works for the Michael Cos., a major Prince George's developer, would supersede their measure and be more palatable to builders by the addition of a "pay-go" clause -- allowing them to simply pay the surcharges to move their projects along rather than having to meet new emergency service standards.
Peters and council member David Harrington (D-Bladensburg) said they would oppose such a bill.
In 2001, the council approved a controversial "pay-go" law that allows builders to put up new homes where school crowding is a problem if the builders paid a fee of as much as $4,940 per unit. The school surcharge is now $12,000 for each unit.
Peters, chairman of the council's Public Safety and Fiscal Management Committee, compared the county's previous adequate public facilities test to an "elementary pop quiz." He likened the new standard to a "college exam."
The old standard for police response times "was really a joke," Peters said. "We didn't set that up, but we wanted to set that straight."
Under the new provisions, police emergency calls must be answered within 10 minutes and nonemergency calls in no more than 25 minutes. The legislation also sets a response time limit of 10 minutes for advanced life support across the county and an eight-minute maximum wait for fire engines and basic life support in the county's rural tier. In other parts of the county, that standard would be six minutes.
In some cases, the new response standards are less stringent than those they would replace. For example, the old guidelines call for paramedics to reach all new structures within 7 minutes and 15 seconds. Peters said the planning department was not consistently enforcing the standards. The new legislation puts enforcement in the hands of the council's Office of Audits and Investigations.
Other jurisdictions take different approaches. Montgomery County, for example, does not conduct a quantitative test for distances between proposed developments and public safety facilities. Instead, officials said, new sites are screened by a subdivision review committee. Unless police, fire or personnel representatives voice concerns, the plans are considered adequate.
The Prince George's bill also requires that the county police department's staffing reach 90 percent of its strength, or 1,278 officers, by the end of the year. If not, plans for housing units would not be approved.
By December 2005, the department would have to be at 95 percent strength, or 1,349 officers, and at full strength by December 2006.
The fire department would have to be at its full strength of 692 firefighters and rescue personnel by December 2005 under the bill.