The Commissioner — Summer 2010

Commission Profile

Engendering a Greater Understanding of Planning in Prince George's County, Maryland

By Karen Finucan Clarkson

"There was a perception that the planning board spoke only to the development community," says Samuel J. Parker, Jr., AICP, chair of the Prince George's County Planning Board. "Over the last four years we've been proactive in engaging the community and have tried to turn things around."

Composed mostly of what Parker refers to as "community activists," the five-member planning board has put community outreach at the top of its priority list. Not only has the board worked to increase citizen understanding of the regulatory process — "so they no longer come in right at the end where their influence is often less," Parker says — but the board has let staff and developers know that it "expects sufficient community outreach, beyond what's required by statute."

The planning board is part of a larger organization, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC). Established in 1927 by the state legislature, M-NCPPC consists of 10 commissioners, half each from Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The planning boards meet separately to review and administer planning and land-use matters in their respective counties and gather together once a month to deal with issues of a more regional nature. "The issue of growth is large," says Fern Piret, Prince George's county planning director. "Where do we urbanize and how fast do we do it?"

The Prince George's Planning Board functions as both a quasi-judicial and advisory body. "They are the final authority in cases of subdivision approvals. The appeal is to the circuit court," says Piret. "With most other cases, they are recommending to the county council serving as the district council."

The planning board in Prince George's County is unusual in many respects. "Not only are we responsible for planning, land use, and zoning for the county, but parks and recreation as well," says Parker.

The position of chairman is a full-time, salaried position, paid about $130,000 annually. The stipend for first-term board members is $18,500 and those in a second or later term receive $25,000 each year.

Board members, including the chairman, serve four-year terms and may be reappointed indefinitely. They are nominated by the county executive and confirmed by the county council. No more than three members may belong to the same political party. "In our county we currently have three Democrats and two Republicans," says Piret.

Current board members come from a variety of backgrounds but each has been active in the community. "We're not heavy on developers or lawyers, though it has been that way before my service began six years ago," says Sylvester Vaughns, the board's vice-chair. "You might say we have people who lean toward more development or less development, but none of them represent a special interest like that."

The planning board meets each Thursday for morning and afternoon sessions. Board members also attend a monthly M-NCPPC meeting. "It is a lot of work," says Vaughns, who reserves each Tuesday evening for a thorough review of the week's agenda, submitted materials, and staff reports.

"We have a good board that works hard," says Vaughns. "We each have different views, but that works in the best interest of the community. When we sit down to discuss a case, you can never be sure what will happen. What you can be sure of is that you're going to get a thoughtful decision."

Balancing Urban, Suburban, and Rural Needs in a Growing County

As Prince George's County continues to evolve, its planning board is looking to give communities tools to allow for more appropriate development. "We are a suburban community of 500 square miles, some of it rural. This county is quickly developing into an urban environment," says planning board chair Samuel J. Parker, AICP. "How we get the proper kind of projects––ones that make sense in a more urban environment––is a challenge."

To that end, the county is rewriting its zoning code "to give more adaptability to different types of development in the different areas we have," says Parker. "The planning and approval processes need to take into consideration how this county is changing."

Because development in the eastern portion of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area lagged behind for years, Prince George's County now is poised to benefit from its economic development efforts. "We have Metro stops that haven't been developed and where the potential is extreme," says Parker.

"We are doing everything we can to make sure development is ready to go at Metro stations when developers become interested," says Fern Piret, the county's planning director. "There should be no impediment to investment."

"Our focus is on mixed use around Metro stations," adds Sylvester Vaughns, the board's vice chair. "We want to make sure these areas are not overwhelmed with housing, that there are commercial, retail, and live-work units."

"There's been an ongoing debate in the county about how to preserve our rural character, generally along the rivers," says Piret. "We need to draw the line and hold on to it. There's been much debate, and tension, about where the line should be."

The discussion is complicated, according to Piret, by the fact that some rural land isn't appropriate for agriculture. "The land was in tobacco for far too long and the soil isn't that great," she says.

Historic preservation is another major focus for the planning board. "We established a historic preservation grant program that the board administers," says Piret. "They've given out about half a million dollars a year for each of the last two years, and we've budgeted the same amount for this year. Many historic preservation planners are architectural historians, focusing on large houses. But what we also have to preserve in our county are the cultural and historic influences that have shaped Prince George's and the region over many, many years."