In Clarksburg, the Year of Living Doggedly

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Standing in her kitchen on New Year's Eve, Amy Presley and her friend Kim Shiley reflected on the unlikely turn their lives had taken. Margaritas were mixed. And they discussed a question that many in Montgomery County would come to ask over the next year: Why are they doing this?

The pair had spent hundreds of hours in 2004 digging through arcane county planning records and grilling reticent bureaucrats to try to document problems in their new housing development. Presley, a marketing consultant, had begun scaling back clients. Shiley, an administrative nurse with the federal government, had sacrificed weekends and days off.

Tears welled in Shiley's eyes. She thought about her cancer, a Stage-4 melanoma now in remission. "Another holiday. It makes me wonder will I still be here next year, and if I have been doing what I could be doing," she told Presley. "I want to have fun, too."

"You will be here, and so will I," Presley remembers telling her.

Nearly a year later, the women, both 43, are working harder than ever, having led a band of resident activists digging up problems in the now-famous Clarksburg. Much has been made of their work at the county's Park and Planning Department, where they've unearthed altered documents, prompted a state investigation and rendered officials so paranoid that one of them refers to two ways of doing business -- B.C., Before Clarksburg, and A.C., After Clarksburg.

Supporters hail the women as civic heroines who faced down developers and lawyers on behalf of their neighbors. Critics say they're angry, inflexible and lacking perspective in a time of tsunamis and floods.

Behind the scenes, their motivations are more complicated. Like a lot of homeowners, Shiley and Presley are worried about their property values. But neither has children, freeing them up to study zoning law and plat records while their neighbors zip to soccer games and piano practices. Both are indeed stubborn, especially when they feel misled. Yet they've also been given to self-doubt in the past -- Presley in her marketing career, Shiley in her work as a mortgage banker.

To perform her digging, Presley said she has given up at least $140,000 in income since setting aside her consulting business. She recently took a $6,000 faux-finishing paint job to bring in cash. Fellow neighborhood activists have offered to lend her money.

Like Shiley, Presley also has taken on higher-stakes fights. She has undergone nine operations, including brain surgery and the repair of a ruptured fallopian tube five minutes before she could have bled to death. She has been pregnant four times without giving birth, the one thing she knew she wanted to do since childhood. Shiley, who is single, sometimes wonders how much the project is keeping her from meeting someone.

Both women know that some people scoff at them for wanting Clarksburg to be idyllic. "What's so wrong with that?" Shiley asked. "We are building a town. How often do you get to do that?"

'It Was About Living'

Builders broke ground for Clarksburg Town Center on Sept. 11, 2000. It was designed to combine the feel of a small town with urban amenities -- a sort of updated, upscaled Mayberry just off Interstate 270 north of Germantown. Buyers snapped up the first of a projected 1,300 homes.

But by summer 2004, grumbling about the retail plan had begun. Residents feared that where they expected to sip wine or a cup of coffee under an awning, they'd get a supermarket flanked by a strip mall.

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