- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Montgomery County staff yesterday issued an investigative report that blamed a confusing planning process and vague laws, not specific planners or developers, for hundreds of building-code violations in Clarksburg.

In its 175-page report, the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight said the Planning Board’s regulatory process was unreliable, its records were incomplete and inconsistent, its requirements for changing site plans were not clear, and it failed to respond to questions and complaints from homeowners.

“At the core of these findings are serious management and process deficiencies,” said Karen Orlansky, director of the Office of Legislative Oversight.

The homeowners group that uncovered the Clarksburg violations said the council’s report was misleading because it did not address potential wrongdoing by builders and developers.

In addition, Amy Presley, co-chairwoman of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, said the report omitted key information that her group provided as well as key sections of the law.

“It is such a small view of what actually occurred, so partially accurate, that I’m afraid it will do more damage,” Mrs. Presley said. “The tough questions aren’t being asked. There is motive somewhere. Someone benefited from this, and it sure … wasn’t the public.”

But Douglas C. Delano, vice president of operations for the developer, Newland Communities of San Diego, said the report was “very thorough” and “a tremendous service for the citizens.”

Residents in the 1,300-home Clarksburg Town Center uncovered hundreds of building violations in their development since August 2004.

Last spring, county planner Wynn Witthans admitted she had changed a site plan to cover up height violations, and then resigned.

Ms. Orlansky said her agency’s investigation examined only the planning process and not larger, more serious issues such as the legality of Ms. Witthan’s actions, documentation that could shed light on those actions, or the legality of the widespread changes made at the development.

The county inspector general and state special prosecutor are conducting separate investigations into the Clarksburg scandal.

Ms. Orlansky said Ms. Witthans was not covering up violations for builders, but was acting in good faith in altering the legally binding site plans.

“In her view, she was not altering a controlling document,” Ms. Orlansky said, adding that Ms. Witthans told her that she thought she was correcting a lone document that was out of line with all others.

Council member Howard A. Denis, Bethesda Republican, disagreed with Ms. Orlansky’s assessment of Ms. Witthan’s actions.

“If everything was so benign, why did she resign?” Mr. Denis said during the nearly three-hour council hearing on the report.

“You have an incredible smoking gun here,” he said after the hearing. “We have to know if there was anything illegal that went on there.”

Other council members downplayed the Clarksburg violations.

“There was a failure in the process,” said council member George Leventhal, at-large Democrat. “I have no reason … to use words like ‘corruption’ or ‘conflict of interest.’ We have no reason to think that commissioners or planners received any personal gain.”

Five of the council’s eight members receive most of their campaign contributions from builders and developers.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat who is running for governor next year, said the report confirms that “the Planning Board’s development review and enforcement system is broken and in desperate need of repair.”

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