District Council ruling puts Werrlein in the zone

Former Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission building. File photo

By HEATHER WRIGHT — Werrlein Properties is one step closer toward breaking ground on its Magruder Pointe project. On May 13, Prince George’s County District Council voted, in a unanimous decision (8-0, with one abstention), to approve with conditions the rezoning of the former Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) property in a manner that would allow Werrlein’s Magruder Pointe proposal to build both detached single-family homes and townhouses to move forward.

The former WSSC property sits on two separate, contiguous lots: the upper lot along Hamilton Street, which is the site of the former WSSC building, and the lower lot along Gallatin Street, which remains a parking lot.

The upper lot is zoned as R-55, which, according to Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) documents, “promotes high density, single-family detached dwellings.” The lower lot is zoned as O-S (open space), which “promotes the economic use and conservation of land for agriculture, natural resource use, large-lot residential estates, [and] nonintensive recreational use.”

The District Council faced a twofold decision: 1) to rezone the lower, O-S lot as R-55 and 2) to change the table of uses to allow town houses in addition to detached single-family houses.

Usually, the District Council receives a recommendation from the M-NCPPC Planning Board in zoning cases. In this ongoing and controversial case, however, the Planning Board deadlocked (2-2, with one member absent) on March 14 and, therefore, submitted no recommendation. But on Feb. 25, M-NCPPC technical staff had recommended approval with conditions of rezoning the lower lot R-55 and changing the table of uses to allow town houses.

The May 13 meeting was evidentiary, meaning that oral arguments could focus only on matters of public record, rather than presenting new information to the council.

Werrlein Properties and supporters focused on a number of opportunities that their proposal would create. They emphasized that the proposal gives the city an option to purchase part of the lower lot, which could be transformed into parkland. And they underscored that the Werrlein project would reinforce the single-family nature of the neighborhood, increase safety in the area, rid the community of a decaying and dangerous building, and allow for better stormwater management.

Norman Rivera, attorney for Werrlein, said, “The WSSC site is ideal as a transition area between [the single-family detached houses] and high-rise apartments and re-utilizes a piece of property that’s long been dormant.”

“You can preserve the building, or you can preserve the neighborhood, but you can’t preserve both,” said Nicholas Harris, who lives on Hamilton Street across from the WSSC building.

Opponents of the proposal focused on how attached dwellings, such as town houses, were not supported by the 2004 Gateway Arts District Sector Plan and don’t align with the goals of this area, which has been designated as a Traditional Residential Neighborhood. Jim Chandler, the City of Hyattsville’s assistant city administrator and director of Community and Economic Development, said that the city does not support the proposed 9 units per acre for the lower lot, but that 3.9 to 7.7 units per acre is consistent with the surrounding neighborhood.

Opponents also argued that the entire lower lot — not just a portion, as stipulated in the Werrlein proposal — should be preserved as open space in order to expand Magruder Park, the city’s largest park. Several residents discussed their concerns about building on a floodplain, especially considering climate change issues.

Kara Veigas, who lives on Hamilton Street across from the WSSC building, said that the proposal “comes at too high a cost to our park, too high a cost to the environment, and too high a cost to the historic nature of the neighborhood.”

Following oral arguments, Councilmember Deni Taveras (District 2), who represents Hyattsville, spoke in favor of rezoning and of the Magruder Pointe project, in general.

“First of all, this is private land, this is owned by somebody, and the city cannot afford it. The WSSC building is an eyesore,” said Taveras. “At the heart of the issue, the opposition is not presenting an alternative plan for a 30-plus-year-old building that’s an eyesore and a danger for the community. And I think [the Magruder Pointe proposal] presents a decent alternative to the community and builds the community.”

She specifically addressed the project’s likely impact on Magruder Park by saying, “I think this project would be adding to Magruder Park.”

In response to opponents’ assertions that changing the lower lot zoning doesn’t conform to the 2004 Gateway Sector Plan, Taveras said, “A school is going to be constructed on Magruder Park, and that’s also inconsistent with the 2004 Gateway Sector Plan, yet we’re moving forward with that. The Gateway Sector Plan is a guidance document. R-55 is consistent with the surrounding neighborhood, and the O-S portion was zoned as such [prior to 2004].”

Taveras concluded, “I know that people won’t be happy with me about this, but I’m moving to approve this project … with conditions.”

There was no further council discussion. However, when Councilmember Thomas Dernoga’s (District 1) vote was called, he said, “I think this is a close question, and if it was my district and I knew more about the … but I’m going to defer to Ms. Taveras in this, although I do think there are a lot of troubling issues that are still out there.”

Those opposing Magruder Pointe were frustrated by Taveras’s rationale and its impact on the overall council’s vote.

Cliff Mayo, member of Save Our Sustainable Hyattsville, wrote in an email following the meeting, “Deni Taveras is a poor representative for Hyattsville on the County Council. She advocated and voted for the zoning change over the explicit opposition of the city, and refused to give consideration to counterarguments. Her support was crucial to the District Council’s decision to support the rezoning.”

Danny Schaible, recently elected to the Hyattsville City Council to represent Ward 2 (where the upper lot sits), also pointed out how the District Council neglected to consider the city’s objections to the proposal. “I am disappointed that the Prince George’s County District Council overruled the Hyattsville City Council and voted to support the Magruder Pointe redevelopment. While [the project is] technically within their purview, I expected them to give greater deference to the Hyattsville City Council, who voted to oppose this project on four separate occasions,” said Schaible.

In contrast, Harris said, “In practical terms, the District Council’s decision was the best for the city as a whole and for the impact zone. Councilmember Taveras was correct: we do not have the money to buy even the lower lot, and the opposition has no alternative to the Werrlein solution, which the facts show is the lowest-density proposal we have seen since the city’s ill-advised opposition to the Miller and Smith proposal to purchase the site in the early 2000s.”

Chandler said the city would not be able to respond to the vote nor decide how to proceed until the resolution, along with its conditions, was published. He expected the District Council resolution to come out by the end of May. The city will then consider options, one of which could be to appeal the decision.

Werrlein, Chandler said, already has a raze permit and can proceed to demolish the WSSC building. Following the District Council resolution, Werrlein will next submit a preliminary plan of subdivision for approval.

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