Clarksburg Residents Win Settlement

By Miranda S. Spivack and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 7, 2006

Clarksburg residents who discovered building irregularities in their northern Montgomery community have won tens of millions of dollars in concessions from the developer and builders to dramatically redesign their neighborhood and add retail, recreation and more open space.

The deal, which could spell the end of the year-long feud, was announced last night at a Montgomery County Planning Board hearing. It would restore much of Clarksburg Town Center to the original small-town concept. It includes a new proposal for a walkable retail center, more green space and extra recreational amenities, including a community building, indoor lap swimming pool and expanded outdoor pool. In addition, retail space would be expanded by about one-third from the earlier plan.

Last year, residents discovered that the developer and builders had constructed homes at the 1,300-unit development that were too high and too close to the street. The board threatened to fine the developer and builders, but delayed penalties to allow for mediation with residents.

"This is a tremendous step forward, and tonight is the night we can change the focus from past mistakes to future potential," said board chairman Derick P. Berlage.

The agreement was mediated by Barbara Kerr Howe, a former Baltimore County circuit judge, after three months of closed-door negotiations among the developer, builders and a citizens group of Clarksburg Town Center residents. Howe would not offer financial details about how much the developer and builders would pay for improvements. She also directed participants to refrain from discussing the mediation, but a source close to the process said the developer's and builders' concessions would total tens of millions of dollars.

The planning board will consider whether to approve the agreement after a series of public hearings starting April 20. The five-member board, whose stewardship of the Clarksburg development has been criticized, appeared cautiously optimistic as it got its first look at the new plans last night.

If the deal holds up, it could mark a turning point in the debate in Montgomery County over the quality and pace of growth and the ability of officials to maintain the county's reputation for careful land use planning. The planning board initially tried to resolve the dispute itself but was challenged by developer Newland Communities LLC and builders over its ability to investigate itself and its staff. Prodded by the County Council, the board agreed to send the case to mediation.

The controversy came to light a year ago after some Clarksburg Town Center residents, unhappy over a proposal for a strip mall instead of a Main Street-style retail area, began examining planning documents. They soon discovered other problems, including buildings that were too tall, that may have been the result of unauthorized changes made by planner Wynn Witthans, who disputes the residents' claims. She resigned in June.

Eventually, the planning board, which had dismissed residents' initial claims, reversed itself and found that more than 100 houses violated height and setback rules.

The residents also claimed that promised recreational sites were not created. They said that a walkable mews linking a historic church to the new community had been converted, without any public discussion, into a public street.

The case cast a cloud over the board's stewardship of Clarksburg and threatened the tenure of Berlage, who wants to be reappointed in June to a second four-year term.

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