Laurel Mall's developers may get the break they say they need to move the overdue renovation of the ailing shopping center forward, if storm-water legislation introduced last week by Prince George's County Council members is approved.
The proposed legislation would establish tougher mandates, in line with state-required levels, on the amount of rainwater captured and filtered before it runs off of a property that developers of new and renovation projects would have to meet.
Developers who did not have their preliminary storm-water management plans approved by May 4, 2010, have not been allowed to move forward with their projects until the County Council passed a storm-water bill, more in line with more stringent state regulations.
Laurel Mall's developers fell under that moratorium because some county officials said the storm-water management plans the shopping center's owners submitted by the deadline were not detailed enough and therefore were subject to change. If the legislation passes, the mall would be allowed to be grandfathered in under the old, less-strict, regulations.
According to District 1 County Council member Mary Lehman, who represents Laurel, under the legislation the council's Transportation, Housing and Environment Committee approved for a vote by the full council, new developments will have to comply with the state's regulation of capturing and filtering 100 percent of the first inch of rainwater, before it runs off the site.
Redevelopment projects would be subject to the current state regulation of capturing and filtering 50 percent of the first half-inch of rainfall, but the requirement would increase to 75 percent of the first inch of rainwater in 2016 and 100 percent of the first inch by 2019. The previous requirement was 20 percent for all projects.
"I wanted higher standards than the state regulations and wanted to get to the 100 percent level quicker, but there wasn't support for that on the committee or to get to 75 percent within three years," Lehman said. "I'm on the committee and voted for the bill because I thought it was a product we could all live with. But we had a spirited discussion on it, and I think we came out with a law that has fewer loopholes for businesses and will protect our waterways."
County Executive Rushern Baker III favored the five-year phase in of the 75 percent requirement, and at a June 22 town hall meeting that Lehman held in Beltsville, Baker commended the council for coming up with what he considered to be a fair bill.
"The committee did a yeomen's job in dealing with this thorny issue," Baker said. "We need to grow our economy but we don't want to do it on the backs of our children by leaving them with a bad environment in future years. If the legislation made environmentalists and the business community unhappy, then you probably came out right. This was a hard struggle."
The storm-water legislation is expected to be voted on by the full council sometime in July, which is good news to City Council President Michael Leszcz.
"This was a speed bump that held up all development, so the legislation will allow developers to know what they have to do and takes things out of limbo," Leszcz said. "I'm satisfied with what will be put in place because it allows redevelopment to move forward, and I applaud Rushern and the council for getting something moving."
Leszcz pointed to several projects in Laurel and nearby areas that have been stalled as county officials continue to work on getting a storm-water bill passed.
"St. Mary's Church is busting at the seams, and they want to put up a new building for a center for more meeting space, Fred Frederick (owner of Fred Frederick Chrysler) wants to put up a new building and outlets are planned for National Harbor (on the Potomac River in Prince George's County), so they've all been waiting," Leszcz said.
As for Laurel Mall, a project that was behind schedule even before the storm-water debates began, the good news for its developers is that the proposed multi-million dollar project will be grandfathered in under the older regulation that only required 20 percent of storm-water runoff to be captured and filtered. Other developers who submitted storm-water management plans by the deadline could build under the old rules as well.
"They can develop to that standard as long as their parking lots, rooftops or other impervious surfaces don't increase by 15 percent or more," Lehman said. "I talked to Leszcz, and he wanted us to leave the language generic to say as long as the plans are not substantially changed. But that was too vague, and we want to be clear on the rules."
According to a Lehman aide, more than 200 developers submitted storm-water plans at the last minute to meet last year's May 4 deadline.
"Some developers may have rushed their project's (storm water) plans in just to get the lower percentage," Lehman said. "I haven't met with the new developer of Laurel Mall, so I have no idea what he's thinking. But I'd heard he was starting from scratch with his plans for the mall."
The new developer and part owner is Brian Gibbons, of Owings Mills-based Greenberg Gibbons Commercial. In February, Gibbons said he planned to scrap the former renovation plans for the mall that the city approved and unveiled a new name, Laurel Towne Centre, along with preliminary conceptual plans for an open air, mixed-use development.
Gibbons was out of town when the committee Lehman serves on voted in favor of the stricter regulations. In an email message, he said, "We are currently reviewing the regulations now in order to determine the affect on the project. Until we study it further, I cannot comment."
In addition to developers being limited in increasing impervious surfaces, to qualify to build under the older storm-water regulations they will can not change their submitted plans' storm-water exit points or drainage patterns.
Lehman said she was pleased the proposed legislation hammered out by the committee included alternative provisions for developers to meet the stricter requirements. One option in the legislation would allow developers to capture and filter rainfall off-site at a nearby property that shares the same watershed.
If the developer does not own property in the area, another site, such as a school or shopping center, could be approved by the Department of Public Works and Transportation, and used to help a builder meet the new runoff filtering levels.
Last year, developers were faced with much tighter regulations when Lehman's predecessor on the council, Thomas Dernoga, proposed an immediate 100 percent filtering of storm water for redevelopment projects. That legislation was never voted on.
"I wanted higher standards, but I realize that requiring 100 percent tomorrow for redevelopment projects would be hard," Lehman said. "I agree and understand up to a point that you don't want to discourage development. Although our bill is not all I want, on balance, it is a good bill."