Clarksburg: A New Word for Rip-Off

By Michele Dyson
Sunday, September 18, 2005

"Sounds like Clarksburg to me," said Allan L. Myers, head of the Maplewood Citizens Association, in commenting about Montgomery County's planning and approval process involving some townhouses in Bethesda.

Myers did not have to explain what he meant by "Clarksburg." The county's planning and approval shenanigans have become that notorious.

Since a multitude of other violations of county planning in Clarksburg and elsewhere have come to light in recent months, county officials have been blowing as much smoke as an unmaintained bus. First, they said the unfortunate circumstance in Clarksburg -- where hundreds of townhouses were built too close to a street and exceeded height restrictions -- was an innocent mistake by an overworked but well-meaning zoning staff.

When that didn't fly, they blamed poor management and lax implementation. And when that dog refused to hunt, too, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), perhaps fearing that the burgeoning scandal might harm his run for governor, declared that shifting all authority to the Department of Permitting Services would "fix" the problem [Metro, Sept. 7].

While the scandal is only about three months old, the practice of greasing the skids for developers who make generous campaign donations has been going on for years in Montgomery County.

The planning and zoning process in the county is governed by a tightly controlled trinity: the Department of Permitting Services, under the iron grip of Duncan; the Montgomery County Council's Committee on Planning, Housing and Economic Development, whose chairman, Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), is a candidate for county executive; and the planning board, whose chairman, Derick Berlage (D), is a former council member. Until recently, this trinity routinely catered to developers and stiff-armed those citizens the developers considered to be pests.

Doubt that? Consider the trinity.

When the Clarksburg residents who uncovered hundreds of code violations involving new townhouses wrote to Duncan about their discoveries, they got a form letter back thanking them for their interest.

Duncan has been the development industry's perpetual dinner guest throughout his political career. His hosts have poured millions into his campaigns and now are helping to underwrite his bid for governor.

Silverman's response to the Clarksburg scandal was to claim he knew nothing about any zoning violations there. The developers have been nearly as generous to Silverman as they have been to Duncan, helping him raise nearly $1 million for his race for county executive.

And when council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), whose district includes Clarksburg, asked Berlage to look into the allegations, the planning board chairman told Knapp everything was fine.

When Berlage was named chairman of the planning board, Duncan gave him his personal approval, and Silverman called him an "outstanding choice." How true.

Berlage is a great piece of presentation software. At public meetings, nobody in Montgomery County is better at talking about smart growth, rural-area preservation and the need for affordable housing. But Berlage also is adept at making sure that when the public meetings end, his planners can undo any trouble that surfaces there. So it's little surprise that Berlage has taken Clarksburg behind closed doors [Metro, Sept. 9]. It's where he does his best work.

A few dozen zoning violations are a problem; a few thousand are a pattern. Duncan, Silverman and Berlage have been in authority for more than 1,000 days, and as it turns out, each one of those days averaged about three zoning violations. But these three county officials and their professional planners denied any violations. Citizens had to track down the violations, which have led to a new definition of "Clarksburg":

Clarksburg (klarks burg) n. 1 The place where uncovered falsified documents revealed the depths to which county building practices and zoning policy have sunk.

C larksburg'ed (klarks burg d) vt. 1 To cheat. 2 To e deceive on purpose. vi. 1 To be treated unfairly. 2 To be violated by deceitful means. Slang. A way of being ripped off.

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