At the April meeting of the Prince George’s County Historic Preservation Commission, the issue of development of additional townhouses along the historic and scenic Suitland Parkway was on the agenda. The Town Center at Camp Springs was finishing the development referral process for the latest additional townhouse pod next to the National Historic Register and County Historic Site, the Suitland Parkway (#76-A-022). As a Commissioner, I expected to be presented with a comprehensive overview at this late point in the process with a summary of all the decisions that had been made previously based on a process that had included key interested parties such as the Historic Preservation Commission and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Instead I was treated to a perfunctory last-minute show in which I gradually felt I was expected to simply vote to approve as a courtesy annoyance rather than as a member of a formal organization with specific duties.
The staff presentation was elegant but failed to include expected context settings such as historic and present aerial photography. Establishing exactly where the development was in relation to anything else in the area was difficult-to-impossible. The presentation failed to show that the Historic Preservation Commission had been involved in the early stages of the development, but through inference suggested that we had made substantive decisions. Nowhere in the presentation was it made clear what specific contributions, if any, the HPC had made early in the process. What was made clear was that the federal government’s interest in the project had been overlooked, leading this Commissioner to wonder that, if the process could miss the Department of th Interior, what else had been missed? And of course, had they completely omitted to include the Historic Preservation Commission at the appropriate stage in the process as well? The planning staff answer was that indeed, somehow at least once there had been a failure to communicate with the Commission or its staff.
When added to the information provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior as to potential view-shed problems and loss of ecological resources such as of mature trees, the project began to take on the look of a preordained approval. Because the HPC was presented with this information at the last moment in the detailed site plan portion of the process, with no time for further consideration, creative workable alternatives were not able to be considered. And so the Commission was left with the choice of choosing vinyl siding colors, a decision choice that simply made a mockery of the purpose of the HPC’s and its role. The HPC was treated as an annoying after-thought and nothing more.
We were told that the property owner has a right to remove the green space and use it as he sees fit, even if this means externalizing his costs on to the greater public by destroying in detail the view-shed of the international gateway to the capital of the United States. The planning staff, in support of the developer, noted that landscapes are by definition not historic in this case. This of course is true because the property is outside the environmental setting. Attempts to consider conservation plans that had been earlier adopted and now seemed to be discarded were not considered, as they are beyond the purview of the Commission. But in fact contrary to the planning staff’s suggestion, such things are within our purview as indicated in the ruling of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation this week against a proposed wind farm project’s view-shed impact because of “…the indirect and direct effects of the project on the collection of historic properties would be pervasive, destructive, and, in the instance of seabed construction, permanent. By their nature and scope, the effects cannot be adequately mitigated at the proposed site.’’
The ideas of ecological system services were not considered mostly because they are extremely inconvenient to this case. In valuing this project, staff and the developer found any preservation costs may be adequately addressed by externalizing these costs of development onto the greater community of the county and the country. In economic terms, the property owner has a rivalrous good which he proposes to consume in order to produce another rivalrous good. Rivalrous goods are those things whose consumption by one consumer prevents simultaneous consumption by another consumer. The use of the land is considered economically excludable. The Suitland parkway on the other hand is both excludable and rivalrous. This means that it is available to everyone but could be lost if the public trust is subverted. The question then becomes, does the property owner have the right to raise the value of his private property at the expense of the public good?
In speaking of parkways, U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd said. “It is a wonder way over which the tourist will ride comfortably in his car while he is stirred by a view as exhilarating as the aviator, may see from the plane” (Loon, 2003). Rather than this inspiring vision, what we will experience if this project goes through is to be awe-struck by the back side of a row of three-story tall townhouses where once stood a scenic landscape. The presentation implied that 700 feet of landscape is more than enough to satisfy any visual impact from a user of the road. Parkways are intended to present “stunning views to and from the city [that] are created by careful placement of vegetation around the motorway” (Loon, 2003), The Future of Parkways in the Landscape). Loon further notes that today some “parkways will need to merge into the tight urban context and form a cohesive and fluid relationship between the motorway and the landscape.” Nowhere is there a suggestion that repeated views of the backs of townhouses will add or enhance the special nature of any parkway. Staff’s comment that the landscape is not part of the Commission’s responsibility and in not part of the historic nature is manifestly incomprehensible. The only party not interested in the landscape’s impact on the historic highway is the developer and property owner. The view is however consistent with the idea that Prince George’s County can pave its way to prosperity for a few.
During the presentation, the Commission was informed that there were other townhouses already built along the parkway. We were to infer that a stare decisis situation existed that excused the destruction of the parkway in detail and piecemeal. The idea seems to be that doing something wrong the first time is the reason to continue doing something wrong until there is nothing left more to destroy. It does seem that this is one of the primary functions of a Historic Preservation Commission: we are to stop and preserve in the face of chronic loss, not for our own immediate needs and desires but for future generations.
The concept of ecological systems that provide resources to mankind was completely missing. Somehow the staff decided that the informing services of the local ecosystem were the only ones worth protecting. In fact it was clear that there was not regulatory or perceived value in the supporting and provision services. Both deGroot (2002) and Constanza (1997) clearly, concisely, and explicitly link historic information services to the regulating and fundamental landscape services. One may not parse an ecosystem into convenient slices for short-term gain and have a sustainable system. The project will enhance the speed at which invasive species, for example, will come to dominate the landscape between the townhouses and the roadway. I do not believe the developer plans to pay for the ongoing maintenance of this area, so it will fall to those of us who not only lose another piece of scenic view-shed but will now also have to bear the cost of the landowner’s unimpeded choices. And let me be clear, the landowner’s choice was in part made possible by a flawed process that is not working and will result in a public cost.
We the Historic Preservation Commission were effectively sidelined and rendered ineffectual by a process that had been altered, abused, and subverted. And because the citizens of the county are unaware of what was happening, there is no reason to change the ghostly machinations and furtive perceptions of backroom deals as the major pathway for development. Our politicians tell us that there is no other way, that we must accept lower design standards and less consideration than other counties. For if we do not let the system work as it has always done, the generous developers will go away and leave us stranded. The HPC had no decision worth making, for all the decisions had been made long before we were brought into the process. The slicing and dicing of the parkway will inevitably lead to the destruction of the very nature of the parkway. We preserved nothing at all, but rather increased the rate at which the nature of the parkway will slip into a vague and undefined state. Our county must be about more than how much money a few people can make by using up a finite resource. The nationally-recognized parkway is in danger of becoming a national example of what not do to and how not to plan.
 Loon (2003), The Future of Parkways in the Landscape.
 deGroot et al. (2002), A Typology for the Classification, Description and Valuation of Ecosystem Functions, Goods and Services; Constanza et al. (1997), The Value of the World's Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital
My thanks to Stephanie Stellick for taking the time to edit, correct and gently nudging this essay into a legible document
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.
"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."
First People - The Legends. Cherokee Legend of Two Wolves. November 16, 2004. [accessed April 7, 2012].