- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

A developer yesterday told the Montgomery County Planning Board that it made major changes at a Clarksburg project without public notice but with assistance from county planners who had the board’s authority.

Representatives for developer Newland Communities of San Diego presented two hours of testimony before the Planning Board, which yesterday held its fifth hearing on Clarksburg this year. The board plans to rule on violations later this month.

Newland representative Douglas C. Delano rejected the notion that the company’s attorneys had constructed a “dark developer conspiracy” to confuse planning staff into approving whatever Newland wanted.

“There was no conspiracy to befuddle,” Mr. Delano said. “There was a professional relationship between staff, developer and builders.”

Mr. Delano and Newland attorneys from Linowes and Blocher, the county’s largest zoning law firm, requested that the board rescind the violations it already has determined that the developer committed.

“You defined for your staff … what would be considered minor amendments,” Newland attorney Steven Kaufman said. “Your staff did exactly what you directed them to do. They became the gatekeeper.”

But the residents group that unearthed hundreds of building-code violations in Clarksburg said the Newland presentation was an admission of guilt packaged in a mountain of data.

“They admitted that they tracked to their own plan,” said Kim Shiley, co-chairwoman of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee (CTCAC).

CTCAC attorney David W. Brown said Newland’s presentation demonstrated that “the public never got an opportunity for input.”

Mr. Brown called it “a complete abdication of responsibility” by the Planning Board.

Newland attorney Todd Brown said he had worked with planner Wynn Witthans since 1994 and an ad hoc development review committee of several county agency representatives to approve scores of changes to site plans.

The changes never came before the Planning Board in a public hearing.

The ad hoc committee approved changing unit types and locations, eliminating a broad pedestrian avenue linking historic Clarksburg to the new town center, reducing lot sizes and street widths, and other alterations.

Further, a builder at Clarksburg revealed that Park and Planning Director Charles E. Loehr had advised Ms. Witthans on a staff-level change last November.

A Planning Board spokeswoman said Mr. Loehr often was involved in staff-level changes.

Mr. Loehr, who retired Monday, has denied that he was involved in staff-level decisions in interviews with The Washington Times. He was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Kaufman said the ad hoc meetings were not closed to the public, but Ms. Shiley said the public was not notified of the meetings.

Ms. Witthans quit in May after admitting that she had changed site plans to cover up height violations by the builder. The board ruled in July that more than 500 homes were too high or too close to the street.

The county inspector general, the state special prosecutor and the County Council’s staff are conducting separate investigations into the Clarksburg violations.

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