Council won’t reimburse residents for sleuthing

Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2006

The County Council has turned down a request to pay costs incurred by activists in uncovering serious failures in the county’s planning process as they pursued hundreds of violations by developers in Clarksburg.

The council did agree unanimously to pay, subject to a review of the charges, up to a third of the costs of mediation that the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee entered into in December to settle their grievances with developers and builders.

But on Tuesday only four council members said they were ready to go further in granting CTCAC’s request which could cost about $500,000 in taxpayer money.

CTCAC asked the county to pay for more than $267,000 in current legal expenses and an estimated maximum of $200,000 more in future legal fees as well as $35,691 in direct expenses.

The requests do not include more than 7,000 hours that CTCAC members have spent searching through an often contradictory and incomplete paper trail at the Planning Department and ferreting out how the process and development regulation went awry, said Amy Presley, a CTCAC founder.

Council members who opposed paying for more than a third of the mediation — the rest of which builders and developers have reportedly agreed to bear — said they fear setting a dangerous precedent.

Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said that although developers may contend that money they have to spend on legal fees will not get spent on community amenities, money that the county has to spend does not go into roads and other infrastructure.

Councilman Thomas E. Perez, who brokered the move to mediation, agreed.

Perez suggested that the council is negotiating against itself by putting money on the table when developers have not said that requiring them to reimburse CTCAC’s legal fees is a deal breaker.

‘‘I don’t see why this mediation has to be different from every other one I’ve been involved in,” Perez (D-Dist 5) of Takoma Park, said.

Paying CTCAC would undercut efforts to get back costs from the developer, said Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg.

The council should not pay CTCAC or others without a policy that provides for paying legal fees, said Councilwoman Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton

Councilman Michael J. Knapp, whose district includes Clarksburg, agreed that worry about setting a precedent needs to be addressed.

The county should bear some costs, said Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown, but needs to hear from the community before agreeing to an amount.

Steven A. Silverman, chairman of the council committee that oversees planning, said the county should pay CTCAC for the work it did.

‘‘It seems to me that the government should step up and be accountable,” said Silverman (D-At large) of Silver Spring, adding that the next time a group encounters ‘‘government malfeasance,” it should be ‘‘knocking on our door” for legal fees.

Councilman Howard A. Denis agreed, saying the county needs to know there is a liability for ignoring residents’ complaints.

In 2002, Denis (R-Dist. 1) of Chevy Chase proposed paying legal costs when residents appealed a decision that would have permitted a garage to be built in the front yard of a house in a community where all garages had 25-foot setbacks.

Five members agreed with Denis in 2002, but County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) vetoed the measure.

Presley estimated that her marketing business lost more than $280,000 because she turned down contracts to see that problems CTCAC found in Clarksburg were corrected for the benefit of the entire county.

She said she and co-founder Kim Shiley have personally committed to paying CTCAC lawyers Knopf and Brown to see the issue through, in monthly payments if necessary, although she said they should not have to.