The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An Amazon warehouse instead of offices. Townhouses in place of an airport. Zoning ‘tool’ allows changes with little scrutiny.

New homes in Westphalia, where a recent zoning text amendment passed by the Prince George’s County Council would allow a warehouse instead of office space in what is supposed to be a town center-type development. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Grassy hills where residents were promised bustling office buildings could now hold a massive warehouse. A small airport could be replaced with more than 500 townhouses. A church property could include housing for the elderly.

Each of the projects is dependent on fast-track changes to existing zoning by the Prince George’s County Council, which relies on bills called “text amendments” to circumvent what lawmakers describe as an outdated and cumbersome zoning process.

For decades, text amendments have paved the way for some of the biggest projects in the Maryland suburb, including FedEx Field in Landover and MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill. To date this year, 22 of 41 bills being considered by the council involve text amendments; they constituted 35 of 85 bills enacted by the council last year.

But residents are increasingly objecting, with the loudest outcry coming in response to a text amendment that would have allowed Amazon to build a 4 million-square-foot “merchandise logistics center” in Westphalia, a subdivision in Upper Marlboro that was supposed to rival town centers in Reston, Va., or Columbia, Md.

Amazon announced Aug. 23 that it was pulling back from the project, following opposition from residents and an appeal in court.

Homeowners in Westphalia say they are thrilled by Amazon’s decision but will continue to pressure the council to change the way it uses text amendments, which critics say can be shrouded in secrecy and rob the public of the chance to voice concerns.

“We have to be really vigilant — a year from now, it could be another warehouse owner,” said Briana Bostic, whose family bought a home in the neighborhood last year. “The bigger story is that this is a pattern.”

Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who has met with homeowners and the developers of Westphalia, said she was “deeply dissatisfied” with the experience of Westphalia residents and shares their concerns about how the zoning process played out.

“A process that lacks public input does not benefit anybody,” Alsobrooks said in a statement. “I think that a process that allows adequate time for public comment in a transparent way not only benefits the community, but also businesses that come here.”

Macy Nelson, a land-use lawyer hired by the Westphalia residents, said other Maryland jurisdictions also use text amendments, but the Prince George’s council has long “led the pack.”

Unlike zoning-map amendment applications, text amendments do not include the names of applicants or properties that will be affected, or require staff reports, or analysis of the potential impact that zoning changes could have, including on schools or roads. Sometimes there is confusion, even among council members, about the affected properties. As a result, citizens rarely show up to public hearings on the amendments, often held on the same day as the council vote.

“It is important to have consistency and certainty,” said Stewart Schwartz, who heads the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, noting that in other jurisdictions, a change as substantial as the proposed warehouse would likely have gone through full zoning review processes.

(Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).

These residents might have welcomed Amazon’s HQ2. But they don’t want its warehouse.

M.H. Jim Estepp, a former council member who now leads the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, said text amendments are important because the zoning process can be expensive and lengthy. A 2018 zoning update will not take effect for several years.

“No one agrees on everything, but most people now would say they are thrilled with National Harbor,” Estepp said. “That and other signature projects were made possible because of these tools.”

Staff at the Prince George’s planning board, which sometimes reviews text amendments, have frequently opposed those that appear designed to make changes at specific properties.

“This process defeats the entire purpose of zoning by preventing uniform application of objective development standards,” read one letter last year by Legislative Coordinator Rana Hightower, about a bill sponsored by council member Mel Franklin (D-At Large) that would have allowed townhouses to be built in certain areas zoned rural-residential and did not initially have design standards.

Hightower wrote that townhouses were “incompatible” with the zone, and they would also be prohibited by the county’s new zoning ordinance.

Franklin, who at the time represented District 9, added design standards to the bill, which passed 8 to 1. Franklin said the bill related to a “unique circumstance,” but said he could not further discuss it because of a pending appeal.

The bill was one of several Franklin sponsored that allowed townhouses to be built on land where such a use had not previously been permitted, upsetting some residents who say they do not want suburban sprawl without a clear vision. One of the bills allowed smaller townhouses more closely together in mixed-use zones.

Franklin said the current zoning ordinance “does not sufficiently embrace residential density, which is why we have struggled to attract quality retail.”

Daniel Donohue, a farmer in Accokeek, said he has closely watched zoning changes and is “very concerned about the whole rural tier,” and especially whether local roads can handle the new residents.

“We just can’t support it,” he said.

Although council members typically defer to the member whose district is affected by the project, some newly elected lawmakers, including Thomas E. Dernoga (D-District 1), Jolene Ivey (D-District 5) and Monique Anderson-Walker (D-District 8) have raised concerns about the text amendment process in committee hearings this year.

Dernoga, a lawyer who spent his early career fighting development projects and previously served two terms on the council, has abstained from voting on site-specific text amendments and vocally criticized the process for its lack of transparency.

After Amazon announced its decision to pull back from the Westphalia project, Dernoga said in a statement that he congratulated “the residents who, against long odds, demonstrated the ability of positive civic engagement to protect their community from unplanned incompatible development.”

Prince George’s didn’t make Amazon’s list. But the county could still be a winner.

Ivey, a former state delegate, said she only sponsors text amendments after she has heard from residents in the area that would be affected. In one case, she submitted a text amendment after speaking with members of First Baptist Church of Highland Park, which needed the change to build housing for seniors.

“What I think needs to be reformed is that we have so many cases where we need text amendments,” Ivey said, adding that she is not yet confident that the zoning rewrite passed last year will address the issues. “And there should be a formalized process for holding public hearings for these changes.”

Council member Dannielle M. Glaros (D-District 3), who chairs the planning, housing and economic development committee, said the council last year increased the interval between when zoning bills are presented and go to committee, allowing planning staff more time to analyze the impact of the bills.

“We have just done an update to the process, but it is good to continually look at our legislative processes and consider if improvements are needed,” Glaros said.

Corryne Carter, who lives directly across the road from where the warehouse facility would have been built, said she received two letters from the Walton Development Group, the developer of Westphalia, informing her of possible changes at the property.

But she said the first official public meeting she heard about was a planning board hearing on June 27 — after the council had approved the legislative change.

The amendment’s lead sponsor was council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6), whose district includes Westphalia. He declined an interview, citing the ongoing case.

But Davis has said in public hearings that he consulted with residents before introducing the amendments that would have paved the way for the warehouse, which he thought would be a catalyst for development.

He also said residents would have an opportunity to weigh in at a planning board hearing to review the “detailed site plan” — which includes information about the size of the facility, the number of parking spaces and the appearance of the facility.

At that July 17 hearing, which lasted for nine hours, planning board chair Elizabeth M. “Betty” Hewlett said it was not the board’s role to approve or disapprove the warehouse, since the law permitting its use was approved by the council 10 to 1 on June 18.

Hewlett said in an interview that the planning board is “not thrilled about text amendments that are site specific, but there are times when they are warranted,” citing a bill this year to add urban farming as an approved use in a variety of zones.

Officials: Amazon exploring a massive logistics center in Prince George’s County

Carter described it like this: “In the text amendment process, you’re not being asked whether you want a car. You’re being told that you’re getting a car, and being asked what color you want it to be.”

She and other Westphalia residents are working with residents in Bowie, about 15 miles north, who have been fighting a text amendment that would allow townhouses to be built on the site of tiny Freeway Airport. The Westphalia residents said they would continue to work with those fighting the Bowie project.

That amendment, also sponsored by Davis, was opposed by the planning board, which said it thought the bill “was drafted for a specific parcel.” It has not yet been voted on by the full council.

Eric Afoakwah, a scientist who moved with his young family to a house across from the airport two years ago, said the area does not have the capacity for townhouses, citing already overcrowded schools and concerns about traffic in the area.

“I know about the dynamics of city life and needing housing,” said Afoakwah, 37, who moved from downtown Silver Spring. “But it feels as though the county council is working for developers, not the residents.”

Officials: Amazon exploring a massive logistics center in Prince George’s County

‘Prince George’s Proud’: Alsobrooks rallies residents in State of the County address

Meet the members of the Prince George’s County Council

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