Questions raised on Brandywine shopping center deal
Vote on tax break could come Tuesday after Nov. 3 introduction of bill
Prince George's County Council members are showing signs of skepticism over a last-minute proposal by Council Chairwoman Marilynn M. Bland (D-Dist. 9) of Clinton to set up a shopping center in her district as a special tax zone to aid the center's expansion.
County Bill 82, which would designate the Brandywine Crossing Shopping Center as a special district for the county to discount about $6.7 million in property taxes over the next 10 years, passed Thursday by one vote, 3-2, in the council's Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee.
The bill could be approved by the full council Tuesday. Bland introduced the bill Nov. 3, and it got a speedy review by the committee two days later.
The proposal was pushed aggressively by Bland at the committee meeting, where she said the existing center needs the district designation to expand. Plans call for the shopping center to have a movie theater, more commercial space and a gas station that would be run by the Safeway grocery store on site.
Setting up the district would allow the developers to apply for county bonds to secure its next phase of growth. The developer would be responsible for paying the county back for the money over 10 years, county staff said.
But the proposal's speed and intention faced tough questioning by committee members.
"Out of everyone here, I'm the one who can appreciate [the benefits] of a public-private partnership," said Councilman Will Campos (D-Dist. 2) of Hyattsville at the Thursday meeting, who noted his district is vying for several development projects that would require similar arrangements.
"But I'm concerned about how quickly this is trying to move through," he said. "I mean, it was just introduced Tuesday, and it's already in committee."
The bill is one of more than a dozen that face a ticking clock in the county. Any bill not passed by the council by Nov. 17 will need to be re-introduced next year.
The committee vote to move the bill forward was supported by Bland and council members Samuel L. Dean (D-Dist. 6) of Mitchellville and Tony Knotts (D-Dist. 8) of Temple Hills.
Dean did not comment on the bill at the meeting. Knotts said he reluctantly voted for the move.
"I would really not consider voting for this," Knotts said. "But there is a need in southern Prince George's County [for commercial business]."
Councilwoman Ingrid Turner (D-Dist. 4) of Bowie, who voted against the proposal, questioned why the council would consider giving special incentives to a shopping center, noting the move is normally used for special developments like the National Harbor complex in Oxon Hill.
"What's the special benefit?" Turner said. "My understanding is that we have lots of shopping centers in Prince George's County."
Bland staffers said the bill was introduced late because it was under review by the county executive's office until a week ago. Bland said the county made a commitment long ago to give the developer assistance on its expansion.
"Before it was even built, this was required," Bland told the committee. "This is something I was aware of, that the executive was aware of. In order to complete it, this is needed."
Bland has been criticized by residents and environmentalists in her district for her support of development projects. In September, a small crowd of District 9 residents gathered to protest Bland's amendments to a master plan that paved the way for shopping centers in the Clinton and Accokeek areas.
Bland said that Brandywine Crossing is one of the few commercial areas in the south county, where residents have been asking for more.
"In the district you represent, there might be plenty [of shopping centers and restaurants] around, but this is a rural area," she said in exchange with Turner. "You may have 50 options around, but we don't."
The bill would only approve the special district. Developers would need a separate authorization from the County Council to get the estimated $6.7 million bond and tax breaks for the next phase.
Knotts warned that he isn't likely to support giving that money unless the questions about timing and need are resolved.
"The greater discussion is going to come later," he said.
E-mail Daniel Valentine at firstname.lastname@example.org.