Clarksburg Fallout Remains to Be Seen

By Miranda S. Spivack and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 12, 2005

Its 200-plus pages are written in pure bureaucratese. And it avoids identifying any major player by name.

But this week's report from the Montgomery County Council's investigative arm still manages to make clear that the county's planning system is ailing and that three officials watched as it grew weaker: Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and County Council member Steven A. Silverman, who heads a key committee with oversight of the planning process.

Berlage, Duncan and Silverman (D-At Large) face career crossroads as they try to shake the stigma of Clarksburg. Duncan is seeking the 2006 Democratic nomination for governor, Silverman hopes to become the next county executive and Berlage is fighting to keep his $129,000-a-year job as board chairman.

None of the three is accountable for all that went wrong at Clarksburg Town Center, where construction problems cited in the report were largely the responsibility of the Department of Park and Planning. The Office of Legislative Oversight concludes that a systemic breakdown began years ago, long before Clarksburg residents pressed complaints that what was built in their northern Montgomery housing development was not what was promised by developers or the county.

Council investigators conclude, however, that the long-festering problems at the planning department -- sloppy record-keeping, indifference to the public's concerns and a culture in which staff and developers work together closely with little supervision -- all worsened as those three officials rose to power.

Duncan, who does not have direct responsibility for the planning department, won his first term as executive in 1994 as a pro-business, pro-growth Democrat. His election marked a dramatic departure from the tenure of Neal Potter, whose measured approach to growth Duncan disdained as "paralysis by analysis." Duncan quickly spread the word that developers would be treated as friends and partners and that construction permits should be expedited.

The sign in his office spoke to the tone Duncan tried to establish: "When will it be done?"

William H. Hussmann, chairman of the Planning Board from 1994 to 2001, said: "The atmosphere in both the county and the [Planning Board] have drifted over time to support growth, development, development interests and projects. As that has happened, staff has sort of followed that point of view."

In 1996, Duncan made good on a campaign promise to create a one-stop shop for builders and developers to obtain permits. They had complained for years that the process was cumbersome, requiring too many approvals from agencies spread through the bureaucracy.

Robert Hubbard, director of the new Department of Permitting Services, also made clear to the building industry that the Duncan administration was an ally.

In 2001, he wrote a memo recalling a recent dinner with the members of the Montgomery County Builders Association. The memo referred to builders as his "clients" and "friends" and "customers."

Duncan pushed for a series of major projects, including the revitalization of Silver Spring, the construction of a controversial convention center in Rockville, and Strathmore Hall, a concert venue near the Grosvenor neighborhood.

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