- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

Builders of a Montgomery County development where a planner covered up hundreds of construction violations have contributed thousands of dollars to the county’s top elected official and a leading candidate to replace him.

The four builders — Bozzuto and Associates, Craftstar Homes, Miller and Smith Homes, and Porten Homes — are awaiting sanctions for the building-height and setback violations discovered at Clarksburg Town Center.

The builders gave at least $14,573 in campaign contributions to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan since 2000, according to campaign-finance reports filed with the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Mr. Duncan, a three-term Democrat who is considering a run for governor next year, responded to the Clarksburg scandal by freezing approval of 199 building permits until they underwent additional review.

County Council member Steven A. Silverman, at-large Democrat and a strong contender to succeed Mr. Duncan as executive, accepted at least $11,500 from the builders of the Clarksburg project since 2000, the records show.

“The executive is in full compliance with all campaign finance laws and ethics laws,” Duncan spokesman David Weaver said.

Mr. Silverman last week voted for a bill that would have tightened council control over the building-review process. The council rejected the legislation, however, instead approving a resolution without the force of law.

“I’ve acted and the council’s acted swiftly to exercise oversight and will continue to do so down the road,” Mr. Silverman said.

Mr. Silverman and other council members chastised the builders and project developer Newland Communities of San Diego for the building violations. They also criticized the county Planning Board for poor oversight.

It is difficult to determine the extent of individual — rather than corporate — contributions to Mr. Duncan and Mr. Silverman by principals and employees of Newland and the four builders.

The Washington Times first reported in June that Park and Planning staffer Wynn Witthans altered the official site plan in Clarksburg to cover up the violations, then lied about it to the Planning Board. The board later found that 535 of 725 homes were built too high or too close to the street.

Builders have approval to finish about 80 more homes, but 500 others will not be built until after the board decides how to proceed in October.

State and county lawmakers said the Clarksburg scandal shattered public confidence in Montgomery’s nationally acclaimed planning process.

“It’s simply unacceptable for the council to be in a position where its fairness is in question because some council members are accepting substantial contributions from developers who will benefit from their decisions,” member Phil Andrews, Gaithersburg Democrat, said in an interview Tuesday.

Mr. Andrews makes a point of refusing contributions from real-estate development interests. He won election in 1998 as a reformer, defeating incumbent William E. Hanna Jr. after a primary battle in which he depicted Mr. Hanna as beholden to builders and developers.

Mr. Andrews last week helped defeat the building-control bill, arguing it was too broad and would “hurt innocent people.”

Mr. Duncan backed a 2002 slate of successful Democratic council candidates who pledged support for the Intercounty Connector, a long-planned highway seen as opening the county to more development. The slate included Mr. Silverman, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, Michael Subin and Michael Knapp.

Neighbors for a Better Montgomery (NBM), a government watchdog group, compiled and analyzed data from state campaign-finance records. The group found that Mr. Duncan received nearly $800,000 in contributions from development interests in the 2002 campaign.

Mr. Silverman received 60 percent to 70 percent of his $265,081 campaign war chest in 2002 from development interests, NBM concluded, and the council member as of January had collected $585,663 from those interests as he prepared to run for executive.

Drew Powell, executive director of NBM, defined a development interest as “any entity, any person or company, that stands to benefit from land development in Montgomery County.”

NBM is not “interested in the facts,” Mr. Silverman said. “They’re interested in their agenda,” he said, which he described as opposing growth and affordable housing.

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