- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

The staff director of Montgomery County’s Planning Board abruptly announced his retirement yesterday following reports about the board’s failure to monitor and prevent hundreds of building violations.

Park and Planning Director Charles R. Loehr, who will retire on Oct. 31 after 25 years on the Planning Board, has held since 1998 the top staff position under the five-member board, which is appointed by the County Council.

Mr. Loehr announced his retirement a day after The Washington Times reported that he this week said another agency was responsible for enforcing building standards in “site plan zones.” However, he wrote a memo to County Council staff in 1992 explaining that his staff is responsible for such enforcement.

County officials and residents have cited the board’s lack of enforcement in the discovery of hundreds of building violations at the Clarksburg Town Center, which were first reported by The Times.

“I’m sad to see [Mr. Loehr] go. He has been a tremendous leader for this organization,” Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage said. “He was not forced out in any manner, shape or form.”

Mr. Loehr, 54, did not return phone calls.

His sudden retirement announcement, which appears to be the first fallout from the Clarksburg violations, has occurred as documents show that developers built dozens of homes — some of which were occupied — before the Planning Board had approved plans for the site.

Ordinarily, site plans and plat records, which show blocks of 10 to 30 homes and provide basic specifications, must be reviewed and approved by the Planning Board before building permits can be issued.

Mr. Loehr’s staff stamped its approval on site plans for the second phase of the Clarksburg Town Center on Oct. 14, 2004, documents show. But Mr. Berlage had signed his approval of plat records in January 2003 for at least 170 homes to be built.

Mr. Berlage’s “signature is stating that … those plat records represent what was approved in the site plan,” said Amy Presley, co-chairwoman of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee (CTCAC), a homeowners group that uncovered the violations.

“That’s a discrepancy in the timeline that we would need to address, and we will,” Mr. Berlage said.

The Planning Board will hold its second hearing on violations at Clarksburg on Sept. 15.

The board already has determined that a former staffer, Wynn Witthans, falsified site plans for Clarksburg and subsequently lied about the changes. Mrs. Witthans resigned in May after admitting that she altered the plans.

The Clarksburg violations are being investigated by the state special prosecutor, the county inspector general and the County Council staff.

Mr. Loehr supervised Mrs. Witthans and oversaw six divisions at the Planning Board. He is one of the most knowledgeable specialists on county zoning law and the ultimate authority for decisions on development review, where the Clarksburg site plans were altered.

“I have no doubt [his retirement] is tied to Clarksburg,” Mrs. Presley said. “We’re disturbed he is leaving at this time, when we believe that he is at the center of all this, and the worry is that now there will be more room for fingerpointing.”

The CTCAC is suspicious of the Oct. 14 site plan, which is missing a column for maximum building height that had appeared in previous plans for other phases of the Clarksburg Town Center.

Mrs. Presley said the documents show either gross mismanagement by the Planning Board and its staff, or an organized effort to falsify site plans by removing standards for height.

“It begins to point to collusion,” she said.

Mrs. Witthans changed building height limits from 35 feet and 45 feet to four stories, Planning Board staffers have reported.

A final staff report dated May 2, 2002, includes miniature copies of two site plans for the second phase of the Clarksburg development. The data tables include a column for “Max. Height” in those plans.

But that column is missing in the Oct. 14, 2004, plan.

In the site plan for the first phase of the development, the “Max. Height” column listed heights of 35 feet and 45 feet as the maximum height.

CTCAC first complained to Planning Board staff in August 2004 about buildings they said were built too high.

The Times obtained copies of the site plans and plat records from the CTCAC, which obtained the documents from Planning Board staff. The Times obtained other key documents from Planning Board staff.

The second phase of the Clarksburg Town Center contained 487 homes, including 204 town houses, 151 single family homes, and 132 multifamily units. A third phase of construction will complete the 1,300 home development.

At least 68 of the 170 homes were fully built or under construction when the site plan was approved on Oct. 14, Mrs. Presley said. CTCAC members were investigating yesterday how many homes were built before Oct. 14 using data from real property data searches and deed records.

Records show that numerous homes were settled on by homebuyers before Oct. 14, as well, CTCAC co-chairwoman Kim Shiley said.

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