Ethical lapses in Prince George's County prompted a judge's decision to void a pair of three-year-old zoning plans.
The two master plans, which cover the southern third of the county, were approved by the District Council in 2009 even though no developers applying for rezoning had filed affidavits reporting their donations to council members -- a legal necessity.
"The troubling ethical lapses in our county over the last decade are not lost on the court," Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Leo Green Jr. wrote in his decision. "It is the view of this court that this circumstance amounts to another ethical failing. The District Council, counsel to the District Council and others were informed of the need for affidavits and turned a blind eye to the law."
The Accokeek, Mattawoman, Piscataway Creeks Communities Council, which helped shed light on the lack of affidavits, brought the suit against the council. The organization's president, Kelly Canavan, said the misdeeds of some developers and government officials make it easier for others to ignore the rules.
"It's because the corruption exists that people feel they don't need to file the forms," Canavan said. "There's a comfortable culture in place where people feel they can just walk their plans through."
The master plans came during the reign of former County Executive Jack Johnson, who was sentenced to more than seven years in prison in 2011 for taking more than $1 million in bribes. His wife, County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson, pleaded guilty to conspiring to tamper with witnesses and evidence after she was caught by FBI agents stuffing $79,600 in her bra and underwear and flushing a $100,000 check down a toilet.
Council Chairwoman Andrea Harrison, D-Bladensburg, said that the current council accepts the decision and will work to reassess the plans. The County Council acts as the District Council for zoning decisions and land use matters.
"The Prince George's County Council will comply with the court order to expediently review" the plans, Harrison said in an email. "The council remains committed to public ethics and transparency in its operations and District Council processes, including the review of the subregion plans."
Exactly what will happen with the plans remains in question. While the judgment is clear in voiding the pair, the stage of planning they must return to is left open-ended.
"What we have to figure out now is exactly what that means," Canavan said. "There are a lot of projects on the way that now have their zoning yanked out from under them."
Green acknowledged the difficulty of negating the work that went into crafting the master plans -- a process that includes meetings, workshops and public hearings among county officials, developers and citizens -- but wrote that a "piecemeal" solution would take too long to implement.
He recommended that the council focus on projects that had been approved in other, completely legal resolutions, writing that allowing those to languish would be a "grave injustice."