- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

The Montgomery County Council yesterday introduced a bill that would strip county planners of decade-old authority to facilitate more flexible development and more pedestrian- friendly communities.

“I have lost faith in [the Department of] Park and Planning to conduct site-plan enforcement,” said council member Howard Denis, Bethesda Republican and one of the bill’s three co-sponsors.

The legislation would transfer all authority for enforcing site plans to the Department of Permitting Services (DPS), which is overseen by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in the executive branch.

Mr. Duncan proposed the idea in September in reaction to a building-code-violation scandal in Clarksburg that has cast doubts about the county’s ability to monitor development.

The County Council in 1994 granted the Department of Park and Planning authority to enforce site plans. The move was hailed as allowing more creative, community-oriented development throughout the county.

But when homeowners in the 1,300-home Clarksburg Town Center this past summer discovered that more than 500 homes were built too high or too close to the street, planning officials told the County Council that DPS was supposed to have enforced the site plans.

Yesterday, Mr. Duncan, a Democrat who is running for governor next year, met privately with members of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee (CTCAC), which uncovered the violations.

CTCAC co-chairwoman Amy Presley said the meeting was “beyond a day late and a dollar short,” noting that neither Mr. Duncan nor the council has condemned the builders for breaking the law — while accepting thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from developers.

“There has been a climate fostered that says we are not accountable to the code,” Mrs. Presley said.

In addition, activists said Mr. Duncan’s idea to transfer site-plan authority to DPS is another example of political posturing that will not fix the problem.

“The proposal is like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” said Norman Knopf, a Rockville attorney who has helped the Clarksburg residents’ group.

“DPS has a long history of almost no enforcement. … They do not enforce unless someone complains,” he said. “That’s because it’s been the policy of this county executive and council to short-fund enforcement staff in this county.”

DPS Director Robert Hubbard yesterday said his agency has been directed to be a complaint-driven enforcement authority. The agency dedicates six of its 80 or so inspectors to zoning enforcement.

“If someone is coming from the perspective that they want a proactive zoning enforcement, that’s not the direction I’ve been given … from the executive and the County Council,” Mr. Hubbard said.

Council member Steven Silverman, at-large Democrat, yesterday inserted a request for $474,250 into the fiscal 2006 budget that would provide DPS with six new inspectors.

“The amount of staff that were asked for is a drop in the bucket compared to what they need,” Mr. Knopf said. “To say they’re going to switch from one to the other is meaningless unless there is a study of what is required to have a full staff and tools.”

Mr. Hubbard said such a study would cost about $30,000 to $40,000.

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