Planners, developers take heat as Duncan erupts

Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2005

Click here to enlarge this photo

Blasting both the Planning Board and developers, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and the County Council increased pressure on regulators this week to fix problems uncovered by the Clarksburg planning scandal.

On Tuesday, Duncan (D) said the county would make a variety of road, traffic control and fire safety improvements in Clarksburg because the Planning Board and San Diego-based developer Newland Communities have moved too slowly.

‘‘I refuse to let time stand still while hearings are held and reviews are conducted,” Duncan said in a statement.

He also announced that the county’s fire marshal has cited Newland and given the company 45 days to fix streets at Clarksburg Town Center that do not allow fire and rescue vehicles access to some homes.

Claims of too-narrow streets are among hundreds of allegations that Clarksburg residents forced the planning board to consider since they discovered that a planner falsified documents to cover height violations earlier this year.

The Planning Board — relying largely on research by the residents, known as the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee — has determined that hundreds of homes were built too tall and too close to streets and that required amenities were not provided.

At a Planning Board hearing on Thursday, Newland and builders are scheduled to present their response to the allegations, including CTCAC’s contention that developers deliberately ignored site plans.

CTCAC claim that developers knew they could ignore the rules because the system would either not catch their violations or allow them to get a change in requirements from planners after a building was built.

What’s next
On Thursday, the Planning Board will hear Clarksburg developers and builders present their response to allegations. The meeting will be telecast, beginning at 9:30 a.m., on county cable Channel 6.
The public record on the Clarksburg cases is set to close on Nov. 18.
The County Council is considering a plan that that would move enforcement authority from the Department of Park and Planning, which is led by the Planning Board, to the Department of Permitting Services, which reports to the county executive.

At an oversight session Monday, Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee Chairman Steven A. Silverman told permitting services Director Robert C. Hubbard that a plan to have buildings measured at 60 site plan zones by April is not satisfactory.

At site plan zones the county allows developers to negotiate some standards in exchange for plans that are supposed to provide more affordable housing and more efficient use of roads and transit.

Measurements have been done at the 20 site plan zones, leaving 60 to be examined, said Silverman (D-At large) of Silver Spring.

‘‘The unanswered question is, ‘So, are there any more Clarksburgs?’ Until we get answer to that, it creates lot of challenges for everyone,” Silverman told Hubbard. ‘‘This committee is anxious to get answers about what has happened in the last two years with these site plans, The number of sanctions that have been issued so far is miniscule,” said Silverman, who is trying to get more than $474,000 added to the Permitting Services budget so that the department can get height and setbacks measured earlier.

But the special zones left a hole in the regulatory process discovered when the planning and permitting departments said this summer that neither was measuring building heights.

At the committee hearing Monday, Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage said planning staff has discontinued the practice of allowing developers’ attorneys to write a draft of Planning Board opinions.

The opinion is regarded a guiding legal document that states the board’s intent for a development.

Although some lawyers, including Silverman, said such practices are common among adjudicatory bodies, he and others called the practice ill-advised.

The practice arose after courts ruled that opinions must be issued in every case that came before the Planning Board, former planners said.

But Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen (D-at Large) of Garrett Park, a former planning commissioner and a land-use lawyer, discounted claims that the practice was warranted to maintain a reasonable workload on the board’s three lawyers.

Berlage also reassured the council that Planning Board staff and commissioners are cooperating with investigations being conducted by the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight, the county inspector general and the state prosecutor.

Berlage’s statement came in response to a memo that Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley sent last week to County Attorney Charles W. Thompson Jr. saying that he had delays and difficulty in his efforts to obtain documents from the agency and schedule interviews with staffers.

Berlage said the information and interviews Dagley requested have been delivered or are on the way, so he was ‘‘mystified” about why Dagley sent the memo. Dagley told The Gazette that he is required to notify the county attorney of difficulties obtaining information from county agencies.

As a quasi-judicial body, the Planning Board cannot discuss pending cases, Berlage said Monday, repeating the board’s stance about answering investigators’ questions.

Council members, who oversee the Planning Board, urged the commissioners last week to set limits, as needed, on what they could discuss so that they could be interviewed by investigators.

Dagley told The Gazette on Thursday that he had not asked to interview planning commissioners.

But Planning Board counsel Adrian Gardner has suggested that OLO determine whether it has questions for the commissioners that ‘‘do not implicate the merits” of the Clarksburg case, said Planning Department spokeswoman Nancy Lineman. Although commissioners cannot talk about specifics of pending cases, they can talk about the process, she said.