The Clarksburg Cabal

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By Michele Dyson
Sunday, November 13, 2005

Montgomery County's Clarksburg scandal has come full circle. Once just a nuisance for elected county officials and their development industry supporters, it now threatens to cripple a cozy, years-long relationship ["County Finds Planning in Disarray; Clarksburg Audit Depicts Agency on 'Autopilot,' Lacking Records," Metro, Nov. 9].

Clarksburg is what happens when elected officials -- hooked on the advantages that large amounts of campaign cash bestow -- get caught helping to smooth over their friends' problems. The relationship worked like this:

As a thank-you for developers' generous support, Montgomery officials designed an easy-access mechanism that gave builders a back-door way to free themselves from some legal commitments. All it took was a quiet stroke of a pen. Behind closed doors, changes were made to official documents to reflect what the builder built -- even if it was built in violation of a previously binding legal document. It was first-class service for first class-ticket holders.

Contrast this treatment to the indifferent and even hostile reception the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee received from officials. At the Montgomery County Planning Board's first hearing on Clarksburg issues, Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage insisted that no violations had occurred, despite the group's overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He also gave the group a stiff arm by saying that the "burden of proof" was squarely on its shoulders.

So what happened when the citizens started looking for that proof in Park and Planning Department files? They encountered long waits for appointments with employees who seemed perpetually unavailable.

They got a similarly cold reception from Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). After making him aware of their concerns, the citizens got back a form letter from the executive thanking them for their interest. Period.

This isn't just about Clarksburg. In recent weeks officials ordered construction halted on two large-scale townhouse projects in other parts of the county [Metro, Nov. 5]. One, the Bethesda Crest project by Elm Street Development, was cited for height and setback violations and for building too close to a church.

What's particularly galling about this episode is that a year ago the Maplewood Citizens Association brought these same complaints to the attention of the Park and Planning and Permitting Services departments. The complaints were ignored.

John M. Clarke, vice president of Elm Street Development, said that his company did not understand the Bethesda Crest findings. But according to Rose Krasnow, head of the county's development review, Elm Street was hoping to amend the Bethesda Crest plans to reflect what had been built. Sound familiar?

Clarke is also the vice president for Montgomery County of the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association. At his installation in January, the association released a statement saying his focus would be on "on increasing the Association's strength and influence in the county and expanding opportunities for affordable homeownership." How nice.

The main goal of lobby groups such as Clarke's actually is to corral influence inside the government agencies that regulate them. This is accomplished in part by doing critical work that agency employees should be doing but aren't doing. Until the moment that Clarksburg blew up in his face, Berlage was allowing lawyers paid by developers to write the drafts of Planning Board opinions, which are considered guiding legal documents.

Developer groups also leverage their clout by placing relatively small amounts of capital -- usually in the form of a campaign contribution -- in the right hands at the right time.

For example, in 2002, County Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), chairman of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, which has oversight responsibilities for the development industry, received 60 to 70 percent of his $265,081 in campaign funds from development interests. As of January Silverman had received $585,663 -- 71 percent of contributions to his campaign for the job of county executive -- from developers.

As for Duncan, he received $775,845 from developers in 2002, which was 56 percent of his haul; in 2006, these people are largely financing Duncan's run for governor, too.

In Lewis Carroll's story "Alice In Wonderland," a rabbit hole divides two worlds. The world above the hole is an upright and orderly place; the world below is ugly and distorted. For the longest time, Montgomery County officials and their developer industry allies presented to a trusting public a planning and development world made to appear honest, upright and orderly. Hidden was that second, ugly and distorted underworld shaped for mutual benefit and profit.

Now Clarksburg has blown the lid off this cozy underworld. But despite the embarrassing position in which some county officials find themselves, it's a good bet that neither they nor the developers who support them are going to give up a single advantage without a fierce fight.

Michele.Dyson@cisglobal.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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