Monday, September 19, 2005

Montgomery County planning officials yesterday said they do not know the full extent of building problems in Clarksburg, after recently discovering that some housing lots are too small by as many as 800 square feet.

During a two-hour hearing, County Council members asked pointed questions of the officials and later criticized their “lack of accountability” that allowed builders to commit hundreds of violations in the Clarksburg Town Center.

“At this point, everybody knows this is a problem. I even went to a dedication of a synagogue yesterday, and the topic of conversation was Clarksburg,” said council member Michael Knapp, a Germantown Democrat who represents Clarksburg. “This is kind of crisis mode.”

Several single-family homes have been built on lots that are as many as 800 square feet smaller than the 4,000 square feet required by site plans, said Rose Krasnow, chief of the Department of Park and Planning’s development review division.

In addition, some plat records, which are detailed drawings of 10 to 30 home blocks, do not match the site plan that they are supposed to be drawn from, Mrs. Krasnow said. The type and number of homes specified on the plats differ from what is shown on the site plans, which are legally binding documents.

Mrs. Krasnow could not say how many homes have been built on smaller lots. The Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, the residents group that uncovered building violations this summer, estimated that two dozen homes are on such lots.

In July, the county Planning Board found that more than 500 homes in Clarksburg were built too high or too close to the street. Former planning staffer Wynn Witthans altered a site plan to cover up the violations, the board found.

The county government’s inspector general, the Maryland special prosecutor and the County Council staff are conducting separate investigations into the violations.

Yesterday, Mr. Knapp said he was not satisfied with responses from Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage, who briefed the council’s Committee on Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED).

Mr. Berlage attended the hearing with Mrs. Krasnow; Planning Board members Allison Bryant and Meredith K. Wellington; and William Mooney, deputy director of park and planning.

Mr. Knapp and council member Nancy Floreen, at-large Democrat, said little has been done to improve the Department of Park and Planning’s process for development review.

“They don’t even have in place right now a docket system that says, ‘Here’s what went in, where and why,’” Mr. Knapp said. “These are the basics.”

Mr. Berlage defended his agency.

“We are prepared to own this problem and to own it aggressively,” Mr. Berlage said. “We have an organization with a tremendous record that we should be proud of.”

Planning officials yesterday issued a stop-work order on clearing or grading land in Clarksburg.

Still, planning officials said they have yet to specify between “minor” and “major” changes that have been made to site plans.

“It should have been done in July,” Mrs. Floreen said. “You guys need to determine what is a significant change.”

Numerous changes in Clarksburg and other developments across the county have been made by agreement between planning staff and builders’ lawyers.

For example, a pedestrian walkway connecting a historic church to the town center was eliminated — and the church was cut off from the development — without public notice or input.

“Nobody knew that there were [changes] taking place,” said council member Steven Silverman, at-large Democrat.

Mr. Berlage said Park and Planning Director Charles R. Loehr uses “his own discretion” in deciding what is a minor or major change.

“There’s always a zone of discretion,” Mr. Berlage said.

Mr. Loehr, who has announced that he will retire Oct. 31, did not attend the meeting. The hearing was the first of biweekly briefings that planning officials will give to the PHED committee, which is led by Mr. Silverman.

The Planning Board has scheduled a hearing on violations on Oct. 6.

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