- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

Montgomery County residents and officials yesterday assailed the Planning Board for saying its staff had authority to make significant changes to site plans without public notice or board approval.

“Why have the whole process to begin with if it’s going to come down to one person?” said Kim Shiley, co-chairwoman of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee (CTCAC), a residents group. “If [so], then Montgomery County citizens have a much bigger concern, because we have a planning process that can be nullified by giving one person the ability to make any and all changes.

“It’s outrageous,” Mrs. Shiley said.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that a Planning Board spokeswoman said a paragraph in a March 1998 board opinion gave staffers authority to change site plans as long as they did not change the “fundamental findings” of the board.

Attorneys for developer Newland Communities of San Diego this month have asked the Planning Board to dismiss accusations that their client violated site plans for the Clarksburg Town Center and cited the paragraph, which is known as “Condition 38.”

Jim Humphries of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, a consortium of homeowners associations, said Condition 38 is contradicted by the county code. “That’s what we’re reading and expecting to be enforced,” he said.

“If the Planning Board agrees that there were no rules, that’s a serious issue. That’s a huge issue,” said County Council member Nancy Floreen, at-large Democrat. “If Park and Planning is saying that that condition allowed the staff to approve all kind of variations without any guidelines, then that’s a real issue for the public.”

The county Department of Park and Planning is the staff for the Planning Board.

Board spokeswoman Nancy Lineman yesterday denied having said the board authorized its staff to make “wide, sweeping changes to site plans.”

But on Thursday, she said of Condition 38: “The board said, ‘This is the condition upon [which] staff can make changes.’”

The issue of whether the Planning Board staff was authorized to change site plans, which are legally binding documents, has further muddled a planning process that county officials have said they can’t comprehend.

“Allowing staff to make changes to a site plan highlights just how broken the system is, and the Planning Board chair has acknowledged that fact,” said David Weaver, spokesman for County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat.

In July, Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage announced that staffers no longer would change site plans without seeking approval from Charles E. Loehr, director of Park and Planning.

Mr. Loehr recently announced he will retire at the end of next month.

Council member Steven Silverman, an at-large Democrat eyeing a run for county executive next year, said Condition 38 is irrelevant because the county code is so vague it is hard to tell the difference between minor and major changes.

“The problem is it’s completely open to interpretation. What may be major to one staffer may be minor to another,” Mr. Silverman said.

Mr. Silverman said many of the site-plan changes in Clarksburg, such as the removal of a walkway that would have linked a historic church to the town center, and road and grading alterations were major, not minor.

“Those are changes that should have gone to the Planning Board,” he said.

Amy Presley, another CTCAC co-chairwoman, said it is “really easy to determine what is major and what is minor.”

She added that Condition 38 is moot because, even if staffers were allowed to make major changes, there is no proof that they actually approved many of the changes in Clarksburg. Her group uncovered hundreds of height and setback violations this past summer.

Park and Planning staff in July rejected the notion that Condition 38 gave staff authority to change height and setback requirements in Clarksburg.

In a 12-page report dated July 7, Rose Krasnow, director of development review, said: “Developers have argued that staff administratively approved the new height pursuant to authority delegated by the Planning Board through Site Plan Condition No. 38. Staff finds no support for this conclusion.”

Mrs. Presley said Mrs. Krasnow and Planning Board attorney Michele Rosenfeld have confirmed to her in meetings as recently as last week that Condition 38 cannot give staff authority to make major changes.

Mrs. Krasnow did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

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