- The Washington Times - Friday, July 8, 2005

The Montgomery County Planning Board yesterday found hundreds of violations in a sprawling development still under construction in Clarksburg, but incensed a citizens group by altering guidelines to accommodate more violations.

“It’s a hollow victory,” Amy Presley, co-chairman of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee (CTCAC), said after a 10-hour hearing in Silver Spring.

The five-member planning board listened to more than eight hours of testimony and deliberated for another two hours, then found that hundreds of houses in the multimillion-dollar, 1,300-home Clarksburg Town Center had violated height and setback restrictions.

“It is critical to sanction the builders through fines,” said Rose Krasnow, the planning board’s chief of development review. “These fines are designed to warn those who might have similar disregard for the standards of this board.” The board delayed imposing fines of up to $1.2 million on Newland Communities, a San Diego-based “master developer,” and against builders involved in the Clarksburg project: Bozzuto and Associates, NV Homes, Craftstar Homes, Miller and Smith Homes and Porten Homes.

The CTCAC was asking for a delay in imposing sanctions so it could look into broader problems in the community.

The board did not discuss the falsification of site plans by a county staff member that occurred last fall, as cited in a planning board report released last week.

The staffer, Wynn Witthans, changed a site plan’s height restrictions to “four stories” instead of 35 and 45 feet, which led the board to vote in April that no height violations had occurred. The CTCAC pressed its case to the board, and Miss Witthans admitted to the falsification in May. She has since resigned. The Washington Times first reported the issue last week.

CTCAC members were outraged that the board was considering moving forward with fines.

“They’re totally twisting what happened,” CTCAC co-chairwoman Amy Presley said. “They want to make it look ambiguous.”

“The citizens’ worst fears have now been confirmed,” said Norman Knopf, CTCAC’s attorney.

He said premature fines would be “foreclosing any meaningful” censure of the developers.

“You are closing your eyes. This is exactly what I pleaded with you not to do,” he told the board.

Chairman Derick P. Berlage said the board was not giving the developers a free pass.

“We’re here listening to you. We’re not closing our eyes. Give us your arguments,” he said to the citizens group.

Mrs. Presley and other CTCAC members have documented and cataloged for the past year what they say is evidence of developers’ disregard for county guidelines in order to build bigger homes for bigger profits.

The board was clear that proper protocol for alteration of site plans had been violated.

“This is a mess and it’s our responsibility to fix this mess. Our credibility and our integrity has been questioned in this process,” board member Meredith K. Wellington said.

The Clarksburg development, planned since the early 1990s, was promised to be a pedestrian-friendly “neo-traditional community” that would become a “gathering place and commercial hub” in the formerly rural northwestern part of the county.

Town houses in the area have sold for $500,000 in recent months, and single-family homes have sold for $700,000 to $800,000.

The development sits on 268 acres, with 100 of those acres set aside for parks and other green areas. It includes a town center with 150,000 square feet of retail space and 100,000 square feet of office space.

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