- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A residents group that has criticized Montgomery County officials for failing to correct major problems in the planning board said yesterday that officials took a “courageous step” in proposing a freeze on 199 building permits until they are thoroughly reviewed.

“It’s going to take care of some things in the county,” said Amy Presley, co-chairman of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee.

The committee played a key role in exposing that the Montgomery County Planning Board had allowed 535 homes in the Clarksburg Town Center to be built in violation of height or set-back requirements. Then a senior staffer falsified site plans to cover up the blunder, officials said.

Four members of the county council proposed emergency legislation Monday calling for planning board Chairman Derick Berlage and Robert C. Hubbard, director of the county’s permitting services, to personally review building permits in residential subdivisions that require a site plan. The permits would then be subject to a 15-day review by the council. The nine-member council could vote as early as Tuesday because it takes a recess from August 1 until Sept. 2.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Mr. Berlage announced another plan on Monday — to freeze residential-building permits in subdivisions that require site plans while the county’s permit-reviewing process is scrutinized by officials.

Though the Clarksburg advisory committee lauded the proposed changes, members said they don’t go far enough, particularly that projects in progress are exempt from the review.

Mrs. Presley said another concern is that the proposal “does nothing” for the original problems at the 1,300-unit Clarksburg Town Center.

“There’s still insistence on going forward: Determining sanctions without having viewed the violations we believe to be fully intentional,” she said.

Building-industry executives were also critical of the proposals, saying the freeze on permits goes too far.

“This rush to impose an almost blanket moratorium on any permit associated with a site plan throughout the county while the process is looked at is an overreaction,” said Susan Matlick, executive director of the Maryland National Capital Building Industry Association.

An estimated 80 percent of residential projects in the county would be delayed by a freeze on permits.

“We’re extremely uncomfortable,” Ms. Matlick said.

She also said builders have numerous concerns, including that the council will be in recess when a backlog of permits could occur.

“This could effect the work force or the home buyer or the [family] working on getting into a new [school] district,” Ms. Matlick said. “I’m afraid these [concerns] were rather lightly dismissed. Hopefully, now that the cameras are turned off, and they are sitting at their desks looking at the bill, they will see where the holes are.”

State Sen. Rob Garagiola, Montgomery County Democrat, said the legislation and Mr. Duncan’s action are just the first steps in resolving problems in Clarksburg.

He said the immediate problem is no fire station, followed by concerns about traffic, passable roads and other emergency services.

“The list goes on and on,” he said. “One aspect of solving this is making sure that the planning that’s been done for this community is done properly. We need to make sure we have the mechanisms in place to ensure the character of the community goes forward.”

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