Breaking New Ground and Glass Ceilings
Women in Planning Series: Part V
By Kristen E. Humphrey, MLA, Local Assistance and Training Planner
With an already storied career as an attorney and principal in a prestigious law firm, Elizabeth (Betty) M. Hewlett broke new ground when she was appointed to her first term as Chairman of Prince George’s County Planning Board from 1995 to 2006. As the first African American and the first woman to serve in this capacity – in both an organization and a profession which, up to that time, was largely dominated by white men – Hewlett, now in her second term (2011-present), is responsible for leading one of the nation’s premier parks and planning organizations.
As Chairman of the Prince George’s County Planning Board, Hewlett is charged with managerial oversight of an organization having more than 6,000 full and part-time employees, a $335 million operating budget, a unionized park police force, all supporting greater than 28,000 acres of park land, 165 miles of trails, dozens of community centers, a new intergenerational aquatics center, skating rinks, a minor league baseball stadium, and countless recreational programs and historic sites, including the oldest continuously operating airport in the world.
All told, the Prince George’s County Planning Board works to deliver quality, innovative planning, along with parks, facilities, recreation programs, and services to upwards of 900,000 county residents and countless visitors annually.
Additionally, Hewlett shares leadership of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), the bi-county organization with oversight of two key departments in each of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties: in Prince George’s County these are the Department of Planning, and the Department of Recreation and Parks; and in Montgomery County they are the Department of Planning, and the Department of Parks (recreation is managed by a different entity)1.
M-NCPPC is a nationally renowned, award-winning organization holding a record of six Gold Medals for Excellence in Parks and Recreation Management presented by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Not insignificantly, both medals number five and six were awarded under Hewlett’s tenure. As reported in the Prince George’s County Bar Association’s newsletter, the PGCBA News Journal:
With an annual budget of $480.3 million, more than 8,000 fulltime employees supporting a planning, park, and recreation system, M-NCPPC serves nearly two million residents of Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties. Significantly, of these considerable publicly owned resources and assets, approximately 65-70% of the total are within Prince George’s County and are overseen by the Prince George’s County Planning Board and Chairman Hewlett (see graphic below).
Image courtesy of M-NCPPC.
Exceptional not just in her chosen legal profession — entitled as she is to practice law before the United States Supreme Court, in addition to numerous federal and state district courts, circuit courts and courts of appeal — Hewlett, who moved to Prince George’s County in 1979 after earning her juris doctorate from Boston College Law School, was by all accounts uniquely qualified to serve as Prince George’s County Planning Board Chairman.
Specifically, before taking the helm, she had already worked for the Prince George’s County Council, in the County Attorney’s office, as well as in private practice. Most significantly, for the seven years preceding her appointment, she served as the Associate General Counsel (principal legal advisor) to none other than the M-NCPPC. Thus, she was uncommonly well-versed in the workings of county government as well as the practice of planning, particularly planning in the bi-county region.
According to an article in the Washington Post at the time, Wayne K. Curry, who as County Executive appointed Hewlett to the board, is quoted as saying, “I think that it is a great benefit to the citizens and to the county that someone with so much experience in government would take the helm at a time when informed and decisive leadership is needed.”3
On a day to-day-basis, Hewlett chairs public and quasi-judicial hearings on land-use matters, making determinations on an array of land use cases, and coordinates and develops cooperative programs with federal, state, and county elected officials and agencies. And as Chair (or, on alternate years, Vice Chair) of M-NCPPC, Hewlett oversees the development and implementation of administrative, legal, labor relations, and other Commission-wide policies and programs.
Some of the major planning projects and initiatives that have been as brought to bear under Hewlett’s tutelage, and for which she is understandably most proud, include the:
Mandatory Referral program – a review process through which all public sector development projects (from federal, state, and local governments) and public and private utilities are referred to the Planning Board for review.
Planning for Major Regional Transportation Projects – including the Purple Line, planning, and property for the Intercounty Connector (ICC), and I-270/495 Managed Lanes project (currently underway).
Primary Health Care Strategic Plan – which serves as a roadmap for improving primary health care as the county builds a new regional medical center.
Rewrite of Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations – Adopted in October 2018 after years of community participation/stakeholder engagement, the new/rewritten regulations streamline the ordinance and development approval processes; modernize and consolidate zones and development standards; incentivize revitalization and economic, transit-oriented, and mixed-use development; and protect stable residential neighborhoods.
The Countywide Sectional Map Amendment (CMA) – Currently underway, the CMA is the second phase of the Zoning Ordinance Rewrite project that will apply the new zones to properties in the county. The Planning Department created an interactive “swipe tool” to show real-time zoning comparisons between the current and proposed zones.
Downtown Development Plans – top infrastructure priorities to create great, mixed-use downtowns in Prince George’s Plaza, New Carrollton, Largo, Suitland, and the Branch Avenue area.
Other achievements include development of The Pulse Newsletter, Planning Assistance to Municipalities and Communities (PAMC), Planning Efficient Transportation Systems, Assistance with Sustainable Communities Designations, a Food System Study, supporting a Redevelopment Authority, among others.
About her tenure as Chairperson, Hewlett remarks in a short video discussing her life and career, that it was wonderful being appointed to the Prince George’s County Planning Board the first time by County Executive Curry, however, she is especially proud to have been invited by later County Commissioner, Rushern L. Baker, III, to serve another term.
Washington Business Journal video – 2011, “Women Who Mean Business: Elizabeth M. Hewlett, Prince George’s County Planning Board and The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.”
Hewlett is much awarded, with entirely too many accolades to name here. However, some of the highlights include being named one of the region’s “100 Most Powerful Women” by the Washingtonian Magazine; “Top 100 Women in Maryland” by The Daily Record and recipient of their “Influential Marylander” and “Leadership in the Law” awards; and “Top Women Who Mean Business” by the Washington Business Journal.
Additionally she has been the recipient of countless prestigious local and national awards alike, including: the Gladys Noon Spellman Award for Excellence in Prince George’s County Government; the Prince George’s Community Foundation Civic Leadership and Woman of the Year Awards; and the National Bar Association’s (NBA) Lifetime Achievement award.
Upon receiving the NBA award, Commissioner Baker remarked, “Betty Hewlett has been a champion for justice and worked tirelessly to improve the NBA and Prince George’s County. Her reach and impact are a reflection of her beautiful spirit and love of humanity. This recognition and honor epitomizes Betty’s extraordinary drive to go above and beyond the call of duty.”4
Not surprisingly, Hewlett’s civic engagement is equally extensive, going far above and beyond her professional duties to include appointments to organizations such as the WMATA Board of Directors, Metro Development Policy Committee, Washington Region Council of Governments (COG), the National Forum of Black Public Administrators and she has even served as Chair of the Prince George’s County Census Complete Count Committee in 2000, and again in 2020.
In this capacity, Hewlett promotes the importance of getting an accurate census count and can be found most Saturdays distributing meals in response to pandemic food insecurity and urging recipients to complete their census surveys. She has also worked on voter registration for several decades, and chaired the county’s Voter Protection Legal Team for every state, local, and national election held over the past two decades, working to ensure the integrity of the vote and the core of our democracy.
Having come from an Office of the County Attorney himself, Secretary of Planning, Rob McCord, was delighted to know that Betty was working on the Census again, “She puts her passion and professionalism into everything she does for her community and has left a legacy of work that will help to ensure a brighter future for the entire region.”
Most recently, Hewlett has led M-NCPPC’s response to the challenges caused by COVID-19 by establishing and making Commission facilities available as daily food distribution sites, for COVID-19 testing, and transitioning the Planning Board hearings to a virtual platform. She identifies that maintaining these weekly meetings helps the county’s tax base, saves jobs, keeps businesses afloat, and ensures widespread virtual community and stakeholder engagement.
On top of all the other mantles she has donned, Hewlett has nonetheless found the time to mentor young legal professionals and work with youth to help them understand the dangers of smoking and illegal drug and alcohol abuse and even participate in holiday toy drives. Rarely will one encounter a person who so thoroughly engages one profession, much less takes on the challenges of two seemingly disparate yet equally demanding professions. In fact, she develops a myriad of ways they complement and support each other, and still finds time to immerse herself in the community. It should come as little surprise then, that one of her favorite adages is, “to whom much is given, much is required.”
In learning about her expansive career and extensive achievements, this author finds herself struggling, however, with one, lingering question:
“When on earth does Elizabeth Hewlett sleep?”
1 The positions of M-NCPPC Chairman and Vice Chairman typically alternate between the sitting Chairmen of the Prince George’s and Montgomery County Planning Boards on an annual basis. Presently, Ms. Hewlett serves as M-NCPPC Vice Chairman.
2 Spotlight On…The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, PGCBA NewsJournal, Prince George’s County Bar Association, April 2019.
3 From the Shadows to the Spotlight, Robert E. Pierre, The Washington Post, July 13, 1995.
4 M-NCPPC News Release, July 30, 2014.