BOWIE - It upset Richard Schroder when a gang of tough-talking teens barged into the barbershop here as he was getting a haircut last year and threatened to harm the young patron in the chair next to him.
He was even more upset after it took police a half-hour to respond when called to the shopping center near his home, even though it was a mile and a half from the station.
So the retired federal employee applauded when the Prince George's County Council, responding to complaints from residents like him, adopted an ordinance last fall barring any new home construction where police, fire and ambulance calls are not answered promptly - within six to 10 minutes for emergencies, and 25 minutes for all other calls.
"We've had armed robberies at our local shopping center," Schroder said recently. "I guess the criminals are not afraid that anyone is going to show up on the scene, because police are dispersed to other parts of the county at various times of the night."
Local officials everywhere wrestle with providing adequate police and fire coverage to their communities, but the Prince George's law is apparently the first in the nation to tie development to emergency response times and staffing.
But the pioneering law has - to almost everyone's surprise - effectively halted new development from being approved for the past five months, even inside the Capital Beltway, where there is broad support for revitalizing the county's older communities.
And the lack of new building could, in turn, keep the county from taking advantage of a new impact fee of up to $6,000 per home that was supposed to help pay for new police and fire stations.
"There were some unintended consequences from the legislation," said F. Hamer Campbell Jr., government affairs director of the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association.
Since the ordinance was approved last November, three new residential subdivisions have been approved in the county, according to Alfonso Cornish, a top aide for County Executive Jack B. Johnson. Four other development plans were withdrawn, and 35 subdivision proposals for 2,100 homes are in limbo because of doubts that they can meet the law's emergency-response test.
Housing is still being built in Prince George's, as the spring crop of real estate signs along Route 3 attests. But those homes were all permitted before the law took effect.
"I think everybody in the building industry is very concerned about it," Michael Ruehr, president of Charleston Homes, said of the development freeze. "It's going to have an impact."
Some worry that the law could hurt the county government financially at a time when local governments statewide are enjoying a boost in tax revenues from red-hot home sales and soaring property values.
"If this bill slows down development countywide, you could be killing the goose that lays a golden egg," said Peter Shapiro, a former County Council member who is a senior fellow at the Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland.
While many localities have laws requiring adequate roads, schools and other public facilities before new development can go forward, Stuart Meck of the American Planning Association said he was not aware of any other community that has attempted to regulate growth by the delivery of public services.
County Councilman Douglas J.J. Peters, who represents the district that includes Bowie, said he spearheaded the emergency-response legislation because he was concerned that the county's growth was outpacing its ability to protect its residents - particularly in the rural tier, which stretches along the Patuxent River down to southern Prince George's. That's where pricey new homes have been springing up like dandelions, with fewer police and fire stations to cover them.
"You can't compromise public safety," Peters said.
But the law revealed that slow responses are not limited to the countryside. Three of six police districts covering half the county have been unable to meet the required response times. In Baltimore County, with a similarly sized population but a larger area to cover, police averaged seven minutes countywide responding to priority calls from 2000 to 2002, the most recent data available.
An even bigger problem has been that the Prince George's Fire Department has been unable to supply monthly reports on response times, as required by the law. The department compiles its response-time data every six months, and to do it monthly would be too costly, said Col. Karl Granzow, a deputy fire chief. That bars any development countywide.
Peters said the law was written in consultation with county police and fire officials, who had assured him they should be able to meet response-time requirements in all but the far-flung rural tier. The fire chief at the time has since retired.