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Some builders frustrated; county trying to get rid of bottlenecks

by St. John Barned-Smith

Staff Writer

It took the Buffingtons six years to build the family’s new commercial real estate office and Bennigan’s restaurant in Clarksburg.

“It was extremely difficult, almost mission impossible. It was really tough,” said Bette Buffington, the owner of the building and restaurant.

The Buffingtons’ experience is one example of the challenge some developers are facing in Clarksburg.

The Buffingtons ran into trouble coming up with a design that the area’s historic commission would approve, Bette Buffington said.

Other developers have gotten snarled in the area’s special exceptions, designed to protect its valuable environmental assets, such as the Ten Mile Creek.

The county, meanwhile, says it is trying to help developers along. County officials say the special exceptions are necessary to protect the area’s environmental assets, and they have made progress simplifying the development process and working on other methods to make it more navigable and customer-friendly.

The Buffingtons said building on Frederick Road took six years and cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars more than they expected in engineering, attorney and other mitigation fees.

“If Clarksburg is to develop, it’s going to have to become more economically feasible to do it. If you make it so expensive for you that you can’t ever see making a profit on your investment, no one’s going to come,” she said.

If they had known how difficult it would be, she said, “Oh, definitely, we wouldn’t have done it.”

Their frustration was with the Historic Commission, she said. The first design they submitted was too big, they were told, Bette Buffington said.

After resubmitting their design several times with little progress, she said, “it got to a stalemate” that was resolved only after her family sued the county. They dropped the suit after the county decided to work with them, she said.

The Historic Commission submitted a counterproposal to their design, which the community rejected, she said.

The Buffingtons’ situation was due in part to their decision to develop a space in the Clarksburg Historic District, which has many small buildings, said Scott Whipple, a historic preservation supervisor for the county.

“It was a more complicated project to come in and try and develop a large commercial development inside the Historic District, and so that took a thoughtful review, and there was more redesign that was necessary to come up with a plan that was compatible with the historic district,” Whipple said.

He said “there were other layers of review that this project had to go through,” from other agencies.

“Eventually, they worked with us,” Buffington said. “It’s just, the process took too long.”

Clarksburg has a population capacity of 43,000 people with nearly 15,000 dwelling units covering about 10,000 acres, according to the 1994 master plan.

In 1994, there were just 866 existing residential units and 106,576 feet of commercial square footage, planners say. Since then, the area has swelled to 5,282 residential units and more than 757,530 commercial square footage, Planning Department spokeswoman Valerie Berton said in an email.

According to Planning Board documents, 304,000 square feet of additional commercial space is approved but not built in the Town Center and Newcut Road areas.

The Pulte Group has been planning since 2009 to build roughly 1,000 homes on 500 acres there, said Charlie Maier, a Pulte Group spokesman. But the company is waiting to see the results of the Montgomery County Planning Board’s work on a limited amendment to the Clarksburg Master Plan.

Development in Clarksburg is managed by a staging plan that balances development with infrastructure, such as roads and schools. The staging plan highlights the need to undertake significant environmental monitoring before allowing development in the Ten Mile Creek watershed, Berton said. Work on an amendment to the Master Plan that would address development in Clarksburg Town Center and the Ten Mile Creek area began last fall and should be completed later this year.

“From our perspective ... they have to make up their minds politically for what they want for that area,” said Stephen Collins, director of entitlements for the Pulte Group Inc.’s Mid-Atlantic region.

Montgomery County is “one of the more difficult places to get things done,” Collins said. The problem is due in part to the different entities that developers have to satisfy — the Office of the Executive, the County Council and Park and Planning, he said.

By contrast, he said, in Virginia, the supervisor is elected, and “everybody answers to them,” Collins said. “You have a better sense of what they want.”

When Ross Flax, head of the Goddard School, first began planning a preschool on Frederick Road in Clarksburg, he was told it would take about 18 months to get to construction, barring traffic or community concerns.

More than four years later, the building process is finally beginning, he said, and that was the team of specialists Flax assembled to help to navigate the county’s development process, he said.

“You have to navigate from one department to the next,” dealing with entities such as the State Highway Administration and the Department of Permitting Services, he said. Responding to those requests makes costs “absurdly high,” he said.

He has faced everything from having to pay for special exemptions to having to have a law modified for the project to go forward, he said.

“If we knew now what the time delay and cost would be for all the things the county holds us accountable to, there would not be a Goddard School coming to Clarksburg,” he said.

Flax said his experience in Howard County is a different story.

“We will absolutely start and have building permits inside of nine months,” he said.

County officials acknowledged the challenges businesses are facing trying to develop in Clarksburg.

“I agree that this is an area where we have to get really, really aggressive,” County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Dist.4) of Silver Spring told editors at The Gazette earlier this year.

“Some of those stories we have heard are just absurd,” she said, adding that solving the problem might require an outside perspective.

“This isn’t just a matter of bureaucrats sitting on appeals in Silver Spring or Rockville. That rarely happens,” said Royce Hanson, former chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board.

Diane Schwartz-Jones, head of the county’s Department of Permitting Services, said, “We want individual economic interests met, county economic interests met, but development has to be balanced with policy requirements as it relates to environment.”

A lot of development has proceeded quickly, she said, mentioning the fast approval process for the area’s new grocery store.

“We’re pretty tickled with Clarksburg right now,” said David Flanagan, the developer building the grocery store that Schwartz-Jones mentioned.

“We’ve come through a very tough recession, and most of our leaders understand jobs are important,” he said.

Still, Schwartz-Jones said, “people need to be willing to submit their plans in accordance with design requirements already established.”

“If you’re going to ask for something different, it’s going to take longer,” she said.

But the county is trying to make the process more efficient, officials say.

The county recently undertook a multi-agency effort to analyze the entitlement process and identify “bottlenecks, duplication of reviews, inconsistent positions and process inefficiencies.”

Released this year, a draft of the review helped identify more than 60 county processes that, if streamlined, could shave weeks or months off various building and permitting processes, on everything from bonds to site plans to special exceptions.

And last month, the county’s Planning Department announced it had created an E-Filing system that would help streamline the department’s planning application process.

Now, instead of having to send multiple copies of the same document to more than a dozen agencies around the county, the ePlans system keeps those documents available for different departments digitally, Berton said.

“On our end, it’s a lot more efficient to share things online and review comments online,” Berton said.

“It’s really helpful,” she said.

sjbsmith@gazette.net