Montgomery to Probe Alteration of Site Plan

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 1, 2005

Montgomery County will conduct a review of its subdivision approval process after a planning department staff member improperly altered a site plan for a sprawling Clarksburg housing development, officials said yesterday.

The review, to be handled by an outside investigator, will focus on how hundreds of homes in Clarksburg Town Center were built in apparent violation of height and setback requirements and on whether similar problems exist in other subdivisions.

"We must take a hard look at our processes -- both internally and externally," said Charles R. Loehr, director of Montgomery County Department of Park and Planning.

A group of residents took evidence of violations to the Planning Board in April. The board found no wrongdoing, after reviewing a document in which the original height restriction of 35 feet had been blacked out and replaced by the words "four stories," or about 40 feet.

A few weeks later, a member of the residents group uncovered a copy of the original site plan, which stated that townhouse heights in the development were limited to 35 feet.

The staff member who presented the altered site plan to the commission, Wynn Witthans, resigned last week. She did not return several calls Wednesday and yesterday seeking comment.

Officials said that they have since identified 102 potential setback violations and that hundreds of townhouses might exceed height limits. A Planning Board hearing to consider possible sanctions against the builders and developer is scheduled for Thursday.

Clarksburg, in northern Montgomery, is contending with an explosion of county-sanctioned growth. Fueled by a robust housing market, the population has grown from about 2,000 to an estimated 5,500 over the last five years. Planners estimate that the town will be home to 41,000 people by 2025.

Because Clarksburg's growth has come so quickly, there has been confusion among officials about who is responsible for enforcing codes there.

The Park and Planning Department is supposed to inspect homes under construction for compliance with zoning laws and the county's master plan, according to county officials. The department, overseen by the County Council, is a part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, an agency that serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

But planning officials said they had thought that the Department of Permitting Services, overseen by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), was responsible.

"I was always told Permitting Services checks heights," said Rose Krasnow, chief of the planning department's development review division.

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