Officials throw wrench into Pulte’s Clarksburg plans

In 2005, with Washington’s suburban housing market booming, Pulte Homes acquired control of some 540 acres in the Ten Mile Creek area of Clarksburg and planned a subdivision with more than 1,000 homes.

Last month, after eight years of work and more than $60 million in investments, Pulte’s prospects in Clarksburg dimmed considerably after Montgomery County planning staff recommended turning at least 80 percent of the property into park land in order to preserve water quality in Ten Mile Creek.

Executives from the home builder, a unit of the publicly traded Pulte Group of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., have been frantically trying to persuade county officials to allow their larger plan by commissioning research, questioning the county’s scientific work and issuing press releases saying the county would be throwing away jobs and tax revenue in dashing its plans.

Lewis Birnbaum, president of Pulte’s Mid-Atlantic division, said the recommendations, completed July 18, would allow the company to build as few as 208 homes, about a quarter of what they planned. He said that Pulte is being blamed for the failures of other developers, particularly those behind Clarksburg Town Center, which has stagnated for more than a decade.

“I think what changed was the economy went into a funk and they left the county high and dry, and didn’t do a responsible job of finishing their property and of doing what they said they were going to do,” he said.

Birnbaum said Pulte has no plans to modify its plans to 200 homes and is considering its legal options. “It’s basically completely taking away our property through zoning and regulation,” he said.

The county recommendations, however, raise serious concerns about how building 1,000 homes on the properties, currently a swath of wooded areas and old farms west of Clarksburg Road and north of Old Baltimore Road, would affect Ten Mile Creek’s water quality and wildlife.

Three major Ten Mile Creek tributaries originate on the Pulte properties, and two are contained almost entirely within them. “The sub-watersheds that would be affected by building out these properties are largely undeveloped, have high overall stream quality, and support many sensitive species,” the report reads. “Any development of these properties will have a negative impact on stream quality.”

The report recommends designating at least 80 percent of the Pulte properties as rural open space and turning most of that into park land. Members of the planning commission and the Montgomery County Council are to consider the recommendations this fall.

Birnbaum said a report by real estate adviser RCLCO shows that the recommendations would reduce retail spending in the area by $13 million annually. “There are millions upon millions of value invested in that property. To take it away, we just don’t think it’s legal and we don’t think it’s fair,” he said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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