Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007

Free the developers from captivity in College Park

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Laura Moore, president of the Graduate Student Government at the University of Maryland, made some good points in a recent letter [‘‘Student housing at University of Maryland held hostage by Dernoga,” Aug. 2] taking me to task about the much-anticipated ‘‘Mazza” project on Route 1 in College Park. In my days as a civic and environmental activist, I certainly took some politicians to task for how they handled land use decisions. In the 1992 Term Limits movement, we cleaned out the County Council because of their terrible land use decisions.

However, I do not recall ever blasting someone for being too hard on a developer. We never had concern that the council might be too tough and demanding, nor that the council might impose environmental restrictions that were too tough, expensive and unfair. I guess I need to reflect about how I can lower my standards to facilitate more multi-family housing in the county. Maybe I have just been fighting for better and more environmentally conscious development for too long and I need to soften up? We know how difficult these times are for developers.

Ms. Moore was very excited about the preservation of 6.5 acres of woodland that the developer volunteered to donate to the county and the connection of the bike trail to Route 1. Of course, the 6.5 acres was unusable because developing it involved a bridge over the Paint Branch that was too expensive to justify and too environmentally damaging to obtain permit approval, but I guess I should have given the developer credit for ‘‘volunteering.” And the trail connection – well, that was ‘‘proffered” to comply with the Route 1 Sector Plan (‘‘Enhance the natural environment by creating and providing access to new green infrastructure elements and providing public access to open space along the U.S. 1 corridor as development occurs.”)

Part of Ms. Moore’s letter is based on a misunderstanding of the process. The first time this case was in front of the County Council was June 18. We had no opportunity to weigh in prior to that and procedural rules prevent us from discussing active cases with parties – although I did meet with student leaders earlier this year to discuss my views about student housing along Route 1 (which I support in appropriate locations). So, I hope that she can explain her statement that I added ‘‘new requirements, without notice, at various council hearings over the past 18 months.”

Ms. Moore and I disagree on a basic issue. I do not believe that student housing that is too far from campus to walk is a significant environmental nor traffic improvement, nor should it qualify for an almost $2 million waiver of school construction surcharge fees. Mazza is too far to walk, and the residents will be permitted to obtain campus parking permits. Ms. Moore also thinks I am wrong to add ‘‘new requirements” to a decision approved 15 months ago. Actually, the city of College Park and the county planning board make a recommendation and the County Council makes the decision. Ms. Moore may be unaware, but in the last two cases from College Park, the recommendations were suspect. In JPI East, many community concerns were ignored and the proposal was contrary to the sector plan. The council rejected those recommendations and made JPI work with the community. In Bare Feet Shoes, long-standing zoning violations were ignored and the recommendation sent to us was contrary to the sector plan and actually violated the lot coverage limitations in the zoning ordinance (proposal to maintain 95 percent lot coverage where only 60 percent was allowed). We rejected that, which the advisory bodies recommended.

So, when Mazza came before us, I was disturbed that two sector plan goals had not even been considered and no evidence presented: (1) Incorporate low-impact development techniques and bioengineering practices to manage stormwater, and (2) Incorporate green building techniques and energy efficiency in buildings.

It may have seemed like last-minute changes, but the sector plan was approved in 2002. If the developer, the planning board and the city cannot figure out the criteria in five years, should I apologize for expecting that standards be met? The council insisted on water quality standards consistent with the new state law (rather than the old law) and that the developer incorporate green building techniques that will ensure energy efficiency (LEED standards).

Ironically, while Ms. Moore is complaining about my treatment of the developer, he seems satisfied enough and is moving forward with the project that she wants. But, if constituents are truly upset that I have held a developer ‘‘hostage” (not the first time), they can circulate a petition seeking my ‘‘recall” and then we can ‘‘free the developers” from captivity.

Thomas E. Dernoga,Prince George’s County councilman, (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel