- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2005

Hundreds of building violations that were uncovered this summer in Clarksburg occurred during the last stages of a planning process that Montgomery County officials have said they find hard to comprehend.

The review of site plans and issuance of building permits for the Clarksburg Town Center did not follow the procedure set by the county code, a review of official documents, drawings and zoning laws shows.

“The main issues have been in the area of enforcement,” County Council President Tom Perez, Takoma Park Democrat, said this week.

“The language that is used [for planning] has become so complex … that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the average person to understand it,” council member Howard Denis, Bethesda Republican, said in July.

Council members have said the violations would not have been discovered if not for the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, a residents group that uncovered discrepancies after poring over plans and permits for nearly a year.

The group found that builders disregarded legally binding plans and built more than 500 homes too high or too close to the street in Clarksburg, while county officials allowed the violations to occur unchecked.

Officials have blamed the violations on confusion between the Department of Park and Planning, which reviews plans and monitors development for the Planning Board, and the Department of Permitting Services (DPS), which issues building permits and enforces standards in zones that do not require site plans.

Park and Planning staff “should have known they should have been enforcing” building standards at Clarksburg, Mr. Perez said. “They’re acting as if there was ambiguity. I don’t think that there was.”

On Tuesday, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan told the County Council he wants to strip Park and Planning of its power to enforce building standards in site-plan zones.

Mr. Duncan, a Democrat who is planning a run for governor, said he wants to transfer all enforcement from Park and Planning, which reports to the County Council, to DPS, which reports to the county executive’s office.

Mr. Perez said Mr. Duncan’s idea is sound but it would be premature to take action before the scope of the problem at Park and Planning is known.

The county inspector general, the Maryland special prosecutor, and the County Council staff are conducting separate investigations.

Mr. Perez promised that by mid-November, after the council staff completes its probe, “it will be crystal clear whose responsibility it was” to enforce building standards at Clarksburg.

Early planning for Clarksburg adhered to the county code: The council and Planning Board approved the master plan in the spring of 1994. The board approved the town center project plan, which laid out the first specific details for the proposed 1,300-home development, on May 11, 1995. The preliminary plan, which dealt mostly with roads and sewage lines, was approved Sept. 28, 1995.

Planning went awry in the final stages. Site plans and plat records, which show blocks of 10 to 30 homes and provide basic specifications, generally must be reviewed and approved by the Planning Board before building permits can be issued.

Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage signed plat records for the second phase of the site plan on Jan. 16 and 23, 2003. Building permits were issued and construction began on the project soon after.

But the site plan, on which the plat records are based and must conform, was approved Oct. 14, 2004.

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

What’s more, former Park and Planning employee Wynn Witthans forged specifications for the first phase of the project, the Planning Board has reported.

“One way or another, there is illegal behavior on top of mismanagement,” said Amy Presley, a chairwoman of the Clarksburg advisory panel.

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