'Dereliction' Seen at Planning Agency

Members of the group that discovered problems at Clarksburg Town Center hope to be reimbursed about $500,000 for their efforts.
Members of the group that discovered problems at Clarksburg Town Center hope to be reimbursed about $500,000 for their efforts. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Montgomery County's planning department, once a national model of efficiency, has fallen into disarray, with morale at an all-time low and staff members complaining that they are under pressure to approve projects quickly, a nationally recognized expert told the County Council yesterday.

Royce Hanson, a land-use specialist at George Washington University, said many of the complaints stem from a "sustained lack of institutional and intellectual leadership." He called for a top-to-bottom review, more oversight from the Planning Board and the council, and a swift decision on the fate of Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage.

"There is some concern among the staff that they have become a development production agency," Hanson told the council, which asked him to review planning practices after construction problems at Clarksburg Town Center were revealed. "There are strong feelings that they were expected to move projects expeditiously and get stuff built. . . . . There is currently a morale crisis."

Berlage and the planning agency were criticized last year after a group of residents unearthed irregularities at the 1,300-home development being built north of Germantown. He hopes to be reappointed in June to a second four-year term. Hanson urged the council to make a decision sooner.

Hanson's review is the harshest assessment to date of how development is being overseen in Montgomery. A report in November by the council's Office of Legislative Oversight was far more circumspect in assigning blame.

"Some of my observations are blunt," said Hanson, who was chairman of the Planning Board from 1972 to 1981 and is working as an unpaid adviser to the council. Hanson is director of the Center for Washington Area Studies at George Washington University. "But you asked for an opinion with the bark off. The Clarksburg crisis is a symptom of serious systemic problems."

Hanson said those problems stem partly from "an unconscionable dereliction of responsibility" by successive planning boards, which in turn led to "lax internal quality control." He said the council, too, had failed in its responsibility to watch over development.

"There is no disciplined system through which either the council or the board establishes priorities or assesses performance," he said. Many top staffers have left the planning agency in recent years, and those who remain "report little or no sense of common purpose or comprehensive context for their work." Hanson based his report on a six-week investigation that included interviews with politicians, planners and developers.

Hanson said officials erred several years ago when they allowed the agency to combine two top jobs -- planning director and parks director.

"That was an awful mistake, and it really needs to be undone," he said. The agency is advertising for the combined position. Charles Loehr, who held the post for several years, took early retirement last year after disclaiming responsibility for Clarksburg.

The county's Department of Parks and Planning, which reports to the council, oversees major new residential and commercial developments. It works closely with the Department of Permitting Services, which reports to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and oversees smaller projects and issues building permits.

Both agencies play key roles in ensuring that new construction is built as promised. Hanson's report focused primarily on the planning department.

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