- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Montgomery County Council yesterday rejected a bill that would have tightened its control over the building-review process in response to hundreds of building violations recently uncovered in Clarksburg.

Citing a “crisis of confidence” in the county’s planning process, the council had expedited action on the bill, which temporarily would have required builders to provide more verification for building permits.

“I am profoundly disappointed,” said council member Steve Silverman, an at-large Democrat who voted for the bill.

Council President Tom Perez, Takoma Park Democrat, and members Phil Andrews, Gaithersburg Democrat, and George Leventhal, at-large Democrat, voted against the bill. Council members Mike Knapp, Germantown Democrat, and Nancy Floreen, at-large Democrat, were absent.

The bill needed votes from six of the council’s nine members to pass.

Council members yesterday promised to take action to fix the planning process, despite the bill’s failure.

Under the bill, building permits would have been issued only after being reviewed by the county’s Planning Board and Department of Permitting Services (DPS) to ensure that permits match site plans.

Neither agency had checked permits for homes in the Clarksburg Town Center to determine whether they matched site plans, which led to violations of height or setback limits for 535 homes.

The Washington Times first reported the violations last month.

Before voting yesterday, the council chastised Planning Board members and staff for not reporting systemic problems with their review process and staffing levels.

“Some of us only recently found out about the depth of what is going on,” said council member Michael L. Subin, at-large Democrat.

The Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, a residents group, spent a year documenting construction problems, including the falsification of a site plan by a Planning Board staffer, and brought them to the County Council’s attention.

“Whoever is pulling on that thread should keep on pulling on it. We have a right to know were there any e-mails to this person,” said council member Howard A. Denis, Bethesda Republican.

He was referring to former board staffer Wynn Witthans, who falsified the site plan and lied about it, according to a Planning Board report. Mrs. Witthan has since resigned.

“I think we should dump the phone records and analyze them. Any phone calls made at 11:45 between people who wouldn’t usually talk to one another?” Mr. Denis said.

“What would have happened if the citizens in Clarksburg had not found these and sent up a red flag that the regulatory system wasn’t working? The answer is, nothing would have happened,” Mr. Subin said.

Mr. Subin said the developer, Newland Communities of San Diego, “would come in, take their megabucks, and go back to California.”

The council’s proposed bill, which would have expired Nov. 1, would have replaced building restrictions imposed by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan last week.

Mr. Duncan’s restrictions halted the issuance of new building permits until the Planning Board and DPS could review them.

It was not clear whether that restriction would remain in place.

No charges have been filed in the Clarksburg case.

County Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley is conducting an investigation into “allegations of fraud” at the Clarksburg site.

In addition, the Maryland state special prosecutor and the County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight also are conducting investigations into the building violations.

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