Clarksburg Crisis Looms Over Head Planner

Some question how Montgomery County planning Chairman Derick Berlage has run his department's day-to-day operations.
Some question how Montgomery County planning Chairman Derick Berlage has run his department's day-to-day operations. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 1, 2005

In a county whose leaders all but worship planning, Derick Berlage is the high priest.

No one has more influence over the pace and location of development in Montgomery County. As Planning Board chairman, Berlage oversees the Department of Park and Planning, the $92 million-a-year agency that manages parkland and regulates development. The five-member board devises land-use policy subject to County Council approval.

That is why responsibility for the problems unfolding in Clarksburg -- where a developer and four builders constructed hundreds of townhouses that are too tall and too close to the street, in violation of a legally binding site plan -- might come to rest with Berlage.

Widely admired for his commitment to "smart growth," affordable housing and the preservation of Montgomery's rural areas, Berlage has led the planning board with fairness and vision, his defenders have said.

But council members and others question how effectively he has run the department's day-to-day operations. "The issue in Clarksburg has been one of management and implementation," County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said. "As head of Park and Planning, that's where that leadership has fallen down." One department staff member improperly altered a planning document in April and later resigned.

Gus Bauman, who served as board chairman from 1989 to 1993, said the position demands "decisive executive ability." Asked whether Berlage has that ability, Bauman said: "That's for the council to decide."

On Tuesday, Berlage appeared before the council, whose members often address him as "chairman." This time, he usually was called "Derick" and sometimes "Mr. Berlage." The informality was occasionally tinged with condescension.

"Derick, Derick, that's not the point," council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) said at midday, dismissing Berlage's comment that the county owes Clarksburg residents a debt for exposing the violations. "The point is, you knew there was a problem eight months ago and you did nothing about it," Subin said. Berlage rejects that assertion.

It was an emotional day, arguably the toughest of Berlage's three years as chairman. One of the worst moments came in the early evening, when council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who in 2002 was a leading supporter of Berlage's candidacy for the job, looked down at his longtime friend, who sat at the witness table. Silverman said: "I do not have confidence in the permit review or site inspection processes in place at Park and Planning,"

A few minutes later, Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) said that Berlage and Robert C. Hubbard, the director of the county Department of Permitting Services, had "a few months" to restore public confidence in how Montgomery oversees developments. Otherwise, he said, the council would have to ask: "Who can we get to do that?"

The man in the middle of this vortex is a sometimes soft-spoken lawyer with a salt-and-pepper Vandyke and a cerebral bent. To unwind after his Tuesday grilling, he poured himself a glass of beer -- just one, he said -- and read part of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina."

In comments to the council and in interviews, Berlage has acknowledged that he will be judged on his cleanup of Clarksburg and said that he is determined to meet the challenge posed by the crisis. "You can bet that development review is an area where I will exercise more hands-on management," he said.

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