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In Clarksburg, the Year of Living Doggedly
Activists Take On Developers, Bureaucrats

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.

It was Presley's nature to dig in when she felt she was correct. "You could argue the stripes off a tiger," her dad would tell her. And Presley was dug into Clarksburg, having purchased a $511,000 home there in 2002 with her husband, Greg.

On July 27, 2004, she joined about 100 residents at a nearby church to hear from the developer, Newland Communities of San Diego. From the back, Presley jumped in with questions about the retail plan.

"Where are you getting your marketing demographics?" she asked.

The Newland contingent said a large grocery store was needed to draw enough customers to anchor the retail development. A few minutes later, a woman Presley had never seen started reading from a county planning document. It was Shiley.

"This is what we're supposed to have," she told the crowd.

Afterward, Presley approached Shiley in the parking lot and offered to help. The next day, they headed to county offices.

The two quickly became friends, bobbing together in a sea of acronyms and planning jargon. They became convinced that the developers, in a series of plans submitted to the county, had promised much more for their quaint, walkable town.

At one point, about 15 Clarksburg residents were at the house of another record-digger, Carol Smith. Presley uncorked a blistering speech, arguing for probing more suspected problems and trying to change the broader planning process.

"I hope I'm not ever on the opposing side of you," resident Mark Murphy joked.

Now, about a year later, the women's crusade clearly has hit a nerve with Clarksburg's developers. They say the town will be as charming and walkable as promised and that Presley and Shiley are nitpicking even the most minor issues -- whether a certain townhouse is around the corner from where it once was proposed or whether a certain alley is six inches too narrow.

"Up to now, we don't have a party we believe we can negotiate with," Newland attorney Stephen Kaufman told Montgomery's planning board this month.

Presley acknowledged that not everything they've alleged needs fixing. But she said their broad search has uncovered important problems, including the retail core, inadequate parkland, altered vistas, homes crammed too close and streets too narrow.

When the women started digging last year at the Silver Spring offices of the Park and Planning Department, they became infuriated with the slow grind of the bureaucratic gears. They couldn't find documents they needed; the person who knew the answers to their questions wasn't available; they needed to go to another office.

"DO YOU SEE THE STEAM coming from my head?!!" Presley e-mailed to Shiley.

Presley starts most days reading the Bible. Slender, with a stylishly short haircut, she drinks regular Coke and smokes Marlboro reds. She left Montgomery College in Rockville after getting married at 19. She moved to Texas, took a job as a receptionist and worked her way into marketing, often worried about her lack of a degree. Several years ago, she took an IQ test that put her minimum score at 147, confirming the beliefs of colleagues who said she had a near-photographic memory and helping fuel her confidence as she opened a marketing consultancy.

As her zeal for Clarksburg grew, she began scaling back clients and ramping up hours spent investigating. "How does it affect our relationship?" Presley's husband, Greg, asked, referring to Clarksburg. "I have a very tired wife."

Shiley grew up in Virginia Beach, a constant sunbather, her mother remembers. At 33, after 12 years in banking and mortgage lending, she wanted something that felt more rewarding. She entered the Navy and became a nurse, working in labor and operating rooms and reached the rank of lieutenant.

Several years ago, she and a boyfriend of 4 1/2 years broke up, ending what she had thought would be a chance to become a stepmother. Shiley felt as though she'd lost a family. She transferred to the Public Health Service and moved to Washington. She liked downtown Bethesda, with its shops and cafes, but it was too costly. She eventually chose Clarksburg and purchased a townhouse for $352,000.

On her way out of Virginia Beach, she underwent a medical screening. What doctors found stunned her: a Stage-4 melanoma. They eventually recommended an aggressive treatment with Interleukin-2, a protein that stimulates infection-fighting cells.

It spawned horrible vomiting, skin peeling and violent convulsions. After each treatment, she visited her new home, under construction in Clarksburg. Shiley envisioned bike trails and parks to walk her two dogs. "It was about living," she said of the planned town. "It wasn't about moving into a home, and being alone, like suburban neighborhoods."

Smoking Site Plan

By April, Shiley and Presley had logged thousands of hours of research. As they expanded their scope, other residents -- particularly those busy with kids -- peeled off, leaving a core of about a half-dozen activists. The group lately tends to gather at Shiley's townhouse, which is stacked with documents. Two members -- Presley and Lynn Fantle -- come and go with their own keys.

As the women dug into their development, they suspected a group of condominiums was higher than a 45-foot limit. At one point, they asked a construction foreman in a hard hat to estimate the height, saying they were trying to settle a bet. Sixty feet, he estimated.

Such revelations added fuel to their suspicions. They kept cajoling county officials, persuading them to hold a public hearing.

Presley delivered a PowerPoint presentation to the planning board April 14. Quoting from county documents going back to 1994, she said the law didn't allow planners to ease height restrictions without a public hearing.

But the board ruled that a set of edited plans was in order. That is, a document in which a 45-foot cap had been scrawled over with a new limit, four stories, had been changed as part of the flexible planning envisioned for the development. The women lost.

Presley tried a different agency, the Department of Permitting Services in Rockville. She asked for anything that might contain one of Clarksburg's site plans, legally binding documents describing what developers intend to do. On April 22, a worker found one in computer files.

It was an unaltered document showing a maximum height of 45 feet, not four stories -- received at Permitting Services in April 2003. Their hunch was right: The change wasn't made years before, in the planning process, but recently -- perhaps to cover tracks.

"I got it! I got it!," Presley exulted to Shiley on her cell phone.

The smoking site plan touched off a series of events. Wynn Witthans, the county planner assigned to Clarksburg, resigned. Her boss, Park and Planning Director Charles Loehr, retired abruptly. The planning board eventually reversed its ruling and halted construction in Clarksburg. It also froze issuance of certain building permits while it examined ongoing projects.

Back in her neighborhood, some residents grew uncomfortable. They liked their homes. They worried that all the attention and uncertainty would diminish property values and delay the project's completion. At that point, some people didn't care what kind of grocery store was coming. They just wanted groceries.

Presley and Shiley say they are not trying to delay the retail. They have been working to keep residents on their side. "We need to make sure the frustration is directed at the right place," Presley said at a Sept. 29 community meeting.

In the crowd of about 50 people, one man asked the activists whether they advocated tearing down homes that weren't in compliance. Another warned that they were running the risk of coming off as elitist in their desires for higher-end shopping .

But the audience was largely supportive.

One resident, Jody Hunt, thanked Presley and the others for their efforts, drawing applause.

"I got my pitchfork," he said. "What do we do next?"

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