UPPER MARLBORO — During their first meeting back from August recess, the Prince George’s County Council approved several items and held a public hearing on a bill that would permit the development of townhomes in Bowie on the site of the Freeway Airport on Sept. 10.
The council held public hearings on a series of bills that were introduced before the recess. A public hearing is typically the last step in the process before the council votes to approve the legislation, said County Council Chair Todd Turner.
For most of the bills opened up for a public hearing at this meeting, however, there were no speakers and the council was able to approve them.
These included changing Columbus Day to Native American Day, increasing the amount of the tax credit cap for homeowners who utilize solar or geothermal energy conservation devices and the transfer of appropriated funding for the fiscal year 2019 capital budget.
However, one bill on the agenda brought out a significant amount of people to testify before the council, many of them opposed to the legislation.
The bill, CB-17, would provide provisions for the development of townhomes and single-family homes in zoning areas listed as “Residential Agricultural” where the proposed property “meets appropriate criteria and has certain residential development regulations imposed on the development of said uses pursuant to a Detailed Site Plan approval process.”
The Planning Board determined that the Freeway Airport, located on Church Road in Bowie, met the criteria for the bill. The redevelopment of the airport property would account for up to about four dwelling units per acre on the 129-acre property which could total more than 500 units at the most.
A letter from the City of Bowie to the county council opposing the bill noted that the legislation could have significant land-use implications for the area because of the increase in dwelling units per acre. Approval of the bill would undermine the process they have just begun of updating the 2006 Bowie and Vicinity Master Plan.
The majority of the nearly four-hour county council meeting was spent listening to comments from the public on CB-17. Most people listed traffic safety, the inadequacy of Church Road to handle an increase in traffic volume and the overcrowding of nearby schools as reasons for their opposition.
Greenbelt City Councilmember Colin Byrd said that the city council of Greenbelt voted to oppose the bill, citing the lack of public transit near the site, negative impacts on green space and the environment, lack of sensitivity to nearby roads and the increase in traffic and air pollution it would bring.
“While I realize that the focus of this bill is Bowie and the development at the Freeway Airport site, in particular, I want to clarify that I am interested in this issue in the long term because of the precedent I think it will set for other municipalities and developments, and in the short term because the bill could allow other properties in the county to do similar things,” said Byrd who was met with applause from the audience at the end of his speech.
Not everyone at the meeting opposed the development of the airport into new homes. Bowie resident Cheryl Landis came to the podium backed by a group of friends and neighbors to say that they support closing the Freeway Airport and turning it into something new.
Landis pointed out how the airport is already underutilized, and its revenue has steadily decreased. It would be more worthwhile to turn it into something more useful to the city, Landis said. While she supported the legislation, she asked that the county council be transparent about the project and advocate for responsible and smart housing.
However, Bowie resident Michael Brown stated that the capacity of Church Road overstretched and with added congestion will come with less safety on the road and the overcrowding of schools.
“We are only asking for responsible development,” Brown said. “If it is true that this volume of homes has been offered as access to their ability to bring retail to Bowie, I ask at what cost to residents of Church Road for retail? This seems like a money grab for the owners of Freeway Airport and developers.”
Following the public hearing, Councilmember Derrick Leon Davis (District 6) pointed out the importance of public participation and that it was beneficial for the council to have so many people come to the meeting.
However, he pointed out that this step in the process is not the deciding factor that the development will happen but is only one stepping stone and a catalyst for conversation. Davis also mentioned the responsibilities of the council for zoning in a transparent and legally binding way. Church Road is not the rural road that it used to be and that the county needs to determine what they want the area to be in the future, Davis said.
“This is the process that gets us to actually what occurs, whether it is a detailed site plan or conceptual site plan, will take into consideration adequate public facilities for schools,” Davis said. “It will take into consideration infrastructure for roads and transportation; it will take into consideration public safety and all the things that are our responsibility as the District Council for health, safety and welfare of Prince George’s County.”
Davis suggested that the council table the bill, discuss it further, and have another public hearing at a later date.
However, Councilmember Monique Anderson-Walker (District 8) thought it would be a good idea to vote on the bill at the Sept. 10 meeting while the people who were concerned were present.
“My concern is your life, your safety, your quality of life is going to be disrupted,” she said.
By the end of the discussion, the county council decided to hold the agenda item and schedule another public hearing at a date that will be determined later.