Residents Find Small-Town Vision Blurred

Amy Presley, Carol Smith and Kim Shiley say Clarksburg Town Center's retail plans counter promises of a
Amy Presley, Carol Smith and Kim Shiley say Clarksburg Town Center's retail plans counter promises of a "classic town." (By Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005

The advertising campaign for Clarksburg Town Center presented the new home development as the embodiment of that old American ideal, the small town.

In words and pictures, promotional literature described the community as if Norman Rockwell had drawn the plans: It would have a town square, and the homes, shops and restaurants would be rendered in "traditional architectural styling."

"A new American classic town," boasted the sign inside the sales center, itself a restored historical home with a wraparound porch and white picket fence.

Now that quaint vision, and disgruntled homeowners' charge that the developers are deviating from it, has erupted into one of the most contentious development battles in the Washington area. After several residents conducted an investigation that led to the discovery of numerous height and setback violations, startled Montgomery County officials reacted this month by ordering a partial building freeze in the county.

But at its root, the Clarksburg controversy is not about technical violations, it's about something far less tangible: the suburbanites' desire to live in a place that's like a small town and not just any ordinary subdivision.

"Basically they tried to plunk a standard strip center with a Giant [supermarket] in the middle of this development that was supposed to be a town," said Amy Presley, a leader of the homeowners group. "That's when lots of people who bought homes here started to get angry."

The Clarksburg dispute is of a new sort, arising not over how densely the land should be developed but over the architectural quality of the "town" that would be created by the development's shops and 1,300 homes.

Residents who have pressed their case are measuring the development against the principles of "new urbanism," a growing architectural movement cited by the developer that disdains contemporary sprawl and seeks to emulate the character of such historical places as Alexandria or Annapolis. Many developers now align their projects with such efforts.

Clarksburg Town Center residents say the developers and home builders assured them that the town would be "like Kentlands, only better," referring to a nationally recognized new urbanist project in Gaithersburg.

"I wanted the feeling like you are in your own little town," said Kim Shiley, a member of the neighborhood group. "But it appears to have become a place where the developers said, Let's just do what we do everywhere else."

Representatives of the developer, Newland Communities, declined to be interviewed about the homeowners' complaints in detail last week. But in a statement, Rick Croteau, president of the mid-Atlantic region for the company, said others have welcomed the proposed grocery store in a retail center with a parking lot.

"Many residents of Clarksburg Town Center have shared with us that they are looking forward to the grocery store," the statement said. "They believe that the grocery store is consistent with the vision for the Town Center; and is an amenity that will provide them with a much-needed convenience."

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