- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

Montgomery County planning staff have issued their first report on a host of suspected construction violations in Clarksburg that will be examined starting this week, but have deferred the most serious issues to the end of the month.

Nevertheless, a citizens group said the Planning Board is not taking the time necessary to examine, in public, more serious issues — including suspected alterations of plans by staff, and multiple staff revisions to legally binding site plans without public notification or board approval.

“It’s David versus Goliath,” said Amy Presley, co-chairwoman of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee. “But Goliath fell.”

The citizens group has complained that builders are illegally ignoring requirements for amenities and affordable housing in the under-construction, 1,300-home Clarksburg Town Center, a contention supported, at least in part, by a report issued Friday.

The county Planning Board’s staff said in the report that the Clarksburg Town Center developer had constructed amenities such as parks, playgrounds and swimming pools as “an afterthought.” The parks were supposed to have been prominent community features, but have been placed in narrow spaces behind or between houses, the report said.

But criticism of the affordable-housing construction at the site is without merit, said Park and Planning Development Review Chief Rose Krasnow. She said the developer is behind schedule but that there is no definitive county law that says affordable housing must be dispersed throughout subdivisions.

Mrs. Krasnow’s report postponed examination of the most serious violations until a special board hearing Oct. 25. On the agenda already are several complex issues that a citizens group has said will take several hours.

“We are disappointed that the staff was unable to come up with a more definitive discussion of more of the issues that were on the table,” said David W. Brown, the advisory committee’s attorney.

Mr. Brown said the issues in Mrs. Krasnow’s report “have never been the heart and soul of what started this process to begin with, which is that things that were being constructed weren’t what they were supposed to be, according to approved plans.”

“There must be some kind of internal dissension within the staff over what to say and what to do, because I thought they were going to be ready on this,” Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Brown said Park and Planning staff told him and members of the advisory committee, “up to the last minute … that we should expect a complete analysis of all the issues on the table, rather than half of them. We would like to know what happened.”

Mrs. Krasnow, reached on her cell phone yesterday, said she could not comment at length because she was out of town.

“As we were going forward, we felt we needed more time to investigate,” she said.

The most serious legal issue, Mr. Brown said, “is whether or not informally approved staff changes in plans were lawfully approved or not.”

Attorneys for developer Newland Communities, of San Diego, have argued that the Planning Board gave staff wide discretionary powers to make changes to site plans without notifying the public or the board.

A Planning Board spokeswoman said the board did give staff extra authority to make changes during building.

The advisory committee has said that the board could not authorize staff to make changes that are classified by the county code as “major amendments.” They say the code clearly differentiates between “major” and “minor” amendments.

Members of the advisory commmittee have spent thousands of hours over the past 14 months researching county planning documents, and have uncovered all of the problems that have come to light in Clarksburg Town Center.

The Planning Board found in July that more than 500 homes were built too high or too close to the street, and that the planning staffer in charge of Clarksburg Town Center, Wynn Witthans, had falsified a site plan drawing to hide the violations.

Ms. Witthans resigned and Park and Planning Director Charles E. Loehr has announced he will retire at the end of this month after 25 years with the agency.

The advisory committee has continued to find problems with the building process in Clarksburg. Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage has acknowledged “discrepancies.”

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