Not Measuring Up to Expectations

Linda Amendt, left, and Diane Gubernot squeeze two cars and a garbage can into their garage.
Linda Amendt, left, and Diane Gubernot squeeze two cars and a garbage can into their garage. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 20, 2005

Residents of The Brownstones, a new townhouse development in Wheaton, were eager to be pioneers in the long-planned revival of the community. Their half-million-dollar homes were just steps from the Metro and the bustle of Georgia Avenue.

But as they unpacked, some made a surprising discovery: Many of the two-car garages of the 75 townhouses, promised in sales materials and described in documents filed with the county by builder EYA, were a very tight squeeze. Two cars will fit, but only if the drivers don't mind getting in and out of their vehicles through doors that barely open. Forget about trying to unload groceries or strapping a child into a car seat.

"When we pulled into the garage, we immediately realized we had a problem," said Diane Gubernot, a government scientist who with her partner, Linda Amendt, paid more than $600,000 for a four-story townhouse on Cobble Hill Terrace.

As Amendt, Gubernot and several of their neighbors found, just because a builder and the county say it's a two-car garage doesn't make it so. And Montgomery County's zoning code for Wheaton, aimed at discouraging cars, allows 17-foot-wide garages.

Which, they are, give or take an inch. But that isn't wide enough for many residents, who have told county officials that the garages are too small for two cars.

"It's really a 1 1/2-car garage," said Byron Derringer, president of the homeowners association. The builder's covenants for the homeowners association also require that homeowners keep trash and recycling cans indoors except on collection day, further crowding the garages.

County officials say that EYA met all the legal requirements for the townhouses it built. And that, some residents believe, is the problem: allowing a builder to present a 17-foot-wide garage as suitable for two cars.

They say the garages are an example of the complexities buyers encounter as they navigate the maze of regulations for new-home construction in rapidly developing Montgomery. After weeks of trying to obtain information from county officials and interpret multiple documents and site plans, residents of The Brownstones are still seeking to understand what they actually bought.

The issues in Wheaton involve two county agencies already under scrutiny for their roles in another troubled residential development: the Department of Permitting Services, which reports to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), and the county's Department of Planning, a quasi-independent agency that answers to the County Council.

This year, a group of Clarksburg residents found that new homes in its Northern Montgomery development were built higher and closer to the street than plans showed. A Department of Planning employee, Wynn Witthans, who has since resigned, acknowledged that she altered planning documents to reflect what the developer, Newland Communities, built.

The Brownstones are on land where the zoning code makes the Department of Permitting Services responsible for oversight. To obtain building permits, EYA, formerly Eakin/Youngentob, was required to supply architectural and other site plans to DPS.

When homeowners examined DPS files, they found that permitting and sales documents promised a garage width of 17 feet 1 inch.

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