Adviser: Let Planning Board fix problems

Council urged not to give executive enforcement power

Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2006

County leaders should leave reforming the county’s planning process to the Planning Board and not dilute its authority, the County Council’s special adviser said Tuesday.

‘‘The basic problem is a sustained lack of institutional and intellectual leadership of the planning system, including but not limited to an absence of internal quality control and external accountability for performance,” Royce Hanson told the council, which is considering ways to revamp development in the county.

He also urged the council to update the county’s zoning laws. ‘‘It’s a mess,” he said.

A former Planning Board chairman regarded as the father of the county’s land-use policy, Hanson is a nationally recognized authority who is working on helping to reform the Planning Board as a volunteer.

His comments echoed criticism from County Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley in a Jan. 12 memo to Council President George L. Leventhal, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage. In the memo, Dagley detailed his investigation of problems, including possible criminal action, at the Planning Department stemming from the summer’s revelations that hundreds of height, setback and amenities violations were found at the Clarksburg Town Center.

‘‘[G]enerally accepted government auditing standards ...have not been used for at least the past six years to evaluate land development application, review, and approval activities administered primarily by the Planning Board,” Dagley wrote.

Councilman Howard A. Denis said the lack of external audits reminds him of problems that the D.C. government had when it audited itself.

Congress gave D.C.’s inspector general federal status to give him audit authority, said Denis (R-Dist. 1) of Chevy Chase.

Which is what the council should do, said Denis, a congressional staffer who works on D.C. government issues.

What’s next
Thursday – CTCAC and developers of Clarksburg Town Center update the Planning Board on their mediation talks. 10 a.m., M-NCPPC, 8787 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring.
Jan. 24 – Planning Board briefs the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee on its management improvement plan. 2:30 p.m. after the council’s regular session. Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville.
Berlage said board does have independent audits on financial matters.

A land development performance audit that has not been done for many years might have detected many of the problems uncovered in the aftermath of the Clarksburg scandal, Berlage said.

Dagley said he is also examining whether some documents and signatures related to violations at Clarksburg Town Center are authentic and whether ‘‘false, misleading or altered entries appear on public records and whether property was wrongly transferred.”

In September, a residents group, Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, reported that some homes were on lots smaller than allowed and that some did not match boundaries set in planning documenss.

As CTCAC continues mediation with San Diego-based developer Newland Communities and five builders to resolve the hundreds of violations, county and state lawmakers are pondering a raft of bills that would change how development is regulated and enforced in Montgomery County.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) has proposed shifting enforcement of site plans — used to define large projects where conditions are set by the Planning Board rather than zoning specifications — from the Planning Department, which reports to the County Council, to the Department of Permitting Services, which reports to the executive.

But on Tuesday, Hanson warned against moving site plan enforcement to Permitting Services and urged the council to make sure it gives the Planning Department the resources it needs to do the job.

Last week, the Planning Board formally opposed shifting enforcement away from the Planning Department and agreed to adopt clear procedures to resolve site plan violations. That’s expected part of the board’s management reform plan that will be presented to the council next week.

The county should oppose state legislation that would give the Planning Board subpoena power, Hanson told the council on Tuesday, but he agreed with provisions that would raise fine limits.

Giving the board subpoena power could intimidate some people from coming before board to air concerns, Hanson said.

Legislation is needed to change fine limits and to enable the board to assign violations to a hearing examiner, Hanson said, but it is not necessary for the Planning Board to improve its processes. The board can make those changes administratively.

Some reform bills before the council are inconsistent with each other and many provisions are ill-advised, Hanson told council members.

Hanson said that only contested violations should be sent to hearing examiner to ‘‘allow a neutral finder of fact” to make a judgment rather than have the council sit in ‘‘judgment of its own cause.”

The Planning Department also needs to split the top jobs in its planning and parks divisions rather than having one person responsible for both, Hanson said.

He also urged the council to make an early decision on whether it will retain Berlage as board chairman because staff morale and the ability to recruit top managers is suffering because of the uncertainty.