1/01/2008

Fear of Eminent Domain Grips PG Hamlet


By Arlo Wagner

Residents of a working-class neighborhood near the New Carrollton Metro station say Prince George's County is trying to bring the area into a sweeping redevelopment project that could replace their homes with high-end condos, shopping and restaurants.

County officials are considering a zoning change to West Lanham Hills to include the neighborhood in an 18-year-old project known as the Transit District Overlay Zone, created by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to develop roughly 71 wooded acres around the busy Metro Orange Line station.

The nine-member County Council unanimously agreed Oct. 30 to have the commission present a plan to expand the zone into the neighborhood, which residents say has caught them by surprise and has included bullying tactics.

"They're calling our neighborhood deteriorating and blighted," said Kate Tsubata, a West Lanham Hills resident and former president of the citizens association.

The 66-year-old neighborhood has no mayor or council, and the association is the closest thing it has to a government.

West Lanham Hills resident Bob Nelson, 43, said he fears the next step will be the county trying to take property through eminent domain.

"I'm always skeptical any time somebody tells me the neighborhood should look like this or that," said Mr. Nelson, who in his youth was the neighborhood paperboy. "We're ripe for the picking."

County Council member Eric Olson, a Democrat who co-introduced the proposal, did not return a phone call Thursday on whether the county would seek to use eminent domain. However, he said last week that no final plans have been made and that public hearings are starting Dec. 5.

"This is the beginning of a public process," he said. "It is very important that the citizens are involved."

Mr. Olson also said that the hearings could continue for a year before a final zoning plan is approved, and that other Annapolis Road communities — including Hansen Oaks and Landover Hills — are part of the plan.

Mrs. Tsubata said the commission has a clear-cut plan, despite what Mr. Olson and others say.

"They've gone from wanting to put 2,400 luxury condos, offices and retail units in a 71-acre parcel to now wanting to put 8,000 units in a 640-acre area, wiping out stable and environmentally low-impact, single-family houses," she said.

Mrs. Tsubata said she has walked the 256-home neighborhood and collected 150 signatures against the zoning change.

Residents acknowledge the region is a potential target for development. In addition to being near the Metro station, which also is an Amtrak stop, West Lanham Hills is surrounded by major highways, including the Capitol Beltway and U.S. Route 50. Also nearby are the new Internal Revenue Service and Computer Sciences Corp. buildings, built as part of the original overlay zone and serving thousands of employees.

Ted Booth, a West Lanham Hills homeowner for 13 years, also said the situation concerns him.

"I've worked hard to have something of my own," he said. "The zone concerns me, and eminent domain concerns me. After that, you have no choice."

Some residents also think they are being bullied into leaving. They say Olson staffer Wanda Brooks, the acting president of the West Lanham Hills Citizens' Association, canvasses the neighborhood looking for such violations as cracked sidewalks and uncut grass, then prepares suggested warrants for police and other county agencies.

"I'm very concerned," said a resident who asked to remain anonymous for fear Miss Brooks also will target her. "She called the neighborhood a slum. She works for Olson; she becomes the association president. All of the bricks are falling into place to the possibility of eminent domain."

Reached by telephone last week and asked about the accusations, Miss Brooks directed a reporter to write the questions in an e-mail. She did not respond to an e-mail sent to the address she specified.

"Suddenly, the community began getting notices of violations with hefty fines of $150," Mrs. Tsubata said. "Virtually every citizen in the neighborhood got a notice. ... In 21 years of us living here, nothing like this ever happened."



Washington DC Times: http://washingtontimes.com