Activists: Planning woes may survive agency shift

Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2006

As the County Council moves toward giving the executive greater authority to enforce and shape land-use decisions, some residents are sounding alarms.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and some council members seem to want to ‘‘skirt the investigative stage,” said Jim Humphrey, chairman of the Montgomery County Civic Federation’s planning committee.

If they succeed, he said, problems uncovered at Clarksburg Town Center may appear resolved when voters go to the polls this fall.

On Thursday, the Planning Board is slated to take a position on bills that would shift enforcement of project site plans from the board to the Department of Permitting Services, which is overseen by the executive.

‘‘The goal is to pass [reform] legislation by the end of February,” said Steven A. Silverman, chairman of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, which will consider the bills Jan. 30.

If there is no ‘‘community consensus” on whether enforcement authority should be moved, the decision may be postponed, said Silverman (D-At large) of Silver Spring, who is running for county executive.

But no matter what happens, he said, the budget that the council approves in May will provide for greater enforcement.

Duncan and some council members proposed the shift in enforcement after a group of residents, known as the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, discovered hundreds of building height and setback violations in their community.

CTCAC also learned that individual planners had been allowed broad discretion to let developers change board-approved plans without public scrutiny.

The Civic Federation strongly opposes moving enforcement to the Department of Permitting Services, chiefly because the DPS enforcement process is not open to the public and because DPS lacks planning expertise, President Daniel L. Wilhelm told the Planning Board last week.

What’s next?
*Jan. 19 – Meeting on improving the public hearing process, 7 p.m., 8787 Georgia Ave. Silver Spring.
*Jan. 23 — Meeting on Arora Hills and Clarksburg Village future development districts, 6:30 p.m., Rocky Hill Middle School, 22401 Brickhaven Way, Clarksburg.
‘‘Basically it’s a closed organization,” Wilhelm said, referring to DPS. ‘‘They enforce certain things they are interested in, and they don’t enforce other things.”

Duncan spokesman David S. Weaver said DPS has a strong record on enforcement.

He added that the county executive is open to improving the proposal, but said that action needs to be taken more quickly and more forcefully than has been done so far by the Planning Board.

‘‘It’s clear Park and Planning isn’t getting the job done with regard to enforcement and we need to make changes,” Weaver said. ‘‘We’re committed to ensuring that people follow the law and enforcing the law.”

CTCAC’s lawyer, David W. Brown, also urged the Planning Board not to endorse any of the legislation until it has assessed all the problems at the planning agency.

The county should fully review the planning process, fix problems in the Planning Department and leave enforcement to the Planning Board, Wilhelm said.

Councilman Thomas E. Perez (D-Dist. 5) of Takoma Park said the council needs to ask what it means to transfer authority to DPS, including what effect it would have on the ‘‘important value of public participation.”

Humphrey said the Civic Federation is also worried because the Planning Board has not held hearings on alleged violations at other sites since the fall when it fined Elm Street Development $6,000 for starting work on the multimillion-dollar Bethesda Crest townhouse community near Wisconsin Avenue before a key planning document was signed.

In testimony for the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, Elm Street Vice President John Clarke told the Planning Board last week that the reform legislation ‘‘fails to recognize the economic need to resolve conflict and conflicting public policy issues in a timely manner.”

On Tuesday, the Civic Federation wrote a letter to the council and Planning Board calling for the board not to consider any amendments to site plans where violations are alleged.

Developers and council members have said they are concerned that development has stalled while the Planning Department struggles to reform.

The board removed an item from its Thursday agenda that would have revised some specifications at Greenway Village, also known as Arora Hills, in Clarksburg. Arora Hills is one of several sites where Planning Department staffers have alleged site plan violations.

According to a staff report, no setback standards have been set for Greenway Village, although the board approved plans more than two years ago. However, the only height limit was four stories, but not in feet as is now required, said Development Review Chief Rose G. Krasnow.