UPPER MARLBORO — The Prince George’s County Planning Board voted to approve the construction of an Amazon distribution center in the Westphalia community following a public hearing on July 18 where residents voiced their disapproval of the plan.
The planning board reviewed the site plan for an Amazon merchandising logistics center which is proposed to be built at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue (MD-4) and Melwood Road in the middle of the still-developing Westphalia Town Center.
Additionally, they heard testimony and took written comments from Westphalia residents during the lengthy meeting.
Westphalia resident Vernon B. Goodwin Sr. noted that for the four years that he has lived in the area, he had expected the undeveloped area to be built into what the residents were promised.
“There were trees, it was beautiful, there were deer, but now after four years waiting for the retail and the grocery stores, four years waiting patiently and paying my homeowners dues and everything, all of a sudden someone decided for me now we will build a warehouse in the center of our whole development,” Goodwin said as he asked the board not to approve the project.
The 80-foot-tall, five-story Amazon merchandising logistics center makes up a total of four million square feet in the heart of the Westphalia Town Center, which was proposed initially as only a residential and commercial area.
Owned by Walton Westphalia Development Corp., the area already contains a set of homes and is in the process of building more. A town center containing retail and dining establishments, offices and hotels were also intended to be built until the owner sold part of the land to Duke Construction Limited Partnership who applied to bring in the Amazon center.
The Westphalia Town Center was conceived as part of the county’s 2002 General Plan, explained Tom Haller, an attorney representing Duke Construction at the Planning Board meeting. The 2002 General Plan focused on the development of various centers and corridors around the county, such as Route 4 where the Westphalia Town Center is located.
The 2007 Westphalia Approved Sector Plan and Sectional Map Amendment attempted to implement the 2002 General Plan and set forth a guideline for the future development of the Westphalia Town Center.
When Walton purchased the area, it was envisioned as a high-density area with transit-oriented development served by Metrorail. According to the 2007 Westphalia Approved Sector Plan, it was intended to bring in a population of 45,000, 11 new public facilities including schools, police and fire stations, and 1,850 acres of parks and trails.
However, the county then adopted Plan 2035 in 2014 which focused more on existing transit centers, not future corridor development like Westphalia Town Center, Haller said.
That changed the direction of Westphalia Town Center, redesignating it as a dense, suburban town center which would be more auto accessible than public transit-accessible.
Townhouse developments already exist in the area but only make up a small portion of the Westphalia Town Center, Haller said. A residential area in while the eastern section is in the works and the developers are working with retailers to bring stores and eating establishments.
He addressed several concerns the community had about the project. One of those being that the proposed library and fire/EMS facilities would still be built in the area. Another was the amount of space that the Amazon center would take up, stating that it would only represent 20% of the entire Westphalia Town Center space.
However, most of the residents who came to the meeting to voice their concerns were not convinced and expressed worries about noise, safety and wanting the Westphalia Town Center to remain as intended.
Deborah Alston said in a letter to the Planning Board that in her time as a resident of the county, she has seen the area grow, but problems do not get fixed such as overcrowded schools and roads that are insufficient to handle the demands of more people.
“Many people bought properties anticipating the convenience of shopping, dining, etc. and now they feel bamboozled,” she said. “Once again, we have been disregarded and minimized. The same thing happened to Beechtree on Rt. 301 in Prince George’s County. They were promised shopping, dining, etc. too and all these years later, nothing.”
The Coalition for Smarter Growth, a nonprofit promoting walkable, inclusive and transit-oriented communities, also wrote to the Planning Board asking them to deny the Amazon center. They said it does not comply with the intended use of the Westphalia Town Center.
“The key to the county’s economic development, particularly in higher-paying jobs, is to support and promote walkable, mixed-use, urban centers. Once the county committed to Westphalia as a mixed-use center, a vision promised to the current residents of the first phase, and the county must stick with that commitment,” the organization said.
They went on to add that it will undermine the existence of current and future mixed-use centers because “no developer, small business, or the residential buyer could count on their investment retaining its value.”
Attorney and Author of the PGUrbanist blog Bradley Heard said he felt the county has been pushing for the Amazon facility despite the objection from residents because of the jobs it would bring as well as the need to “resurrect the idea of Westphalia.” However, he felt a better location could have been chosen.
Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Principal Counsel Debra Borden explained that the Planning Board has a set of criteria they must follow when determining whether or not to approve a project.
They cannot take into account things like property values or how much the jobs would pay, both were brought up by residents, because those are not relevant to the placement of the building.
They can reject if the applicant does not incorporate any reasonable changes the board requires.
Before taking their vote, members of the board commended the community for coming out to make their voices heard on an issue that affects them.
“It is obvious that Westphalia is a community of neighbors and as a board we want you to know we’ve heard everything that you said and that we do take your complaints and concerns seriously, not lightly,” said Planning Board Member Manuel Geraldo before making a motion to approve which the rest of the board then voted to accept.