Chairman to Quit Planning Board

By Miranda S. Spivack and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Montgomery County's Planning Board chairman said yesterday that he will step aside to give his agency a "fresh start" after a year of controversy over building irregularities at Clarksburg Town Center and concerns about his leadership of the department that oversees growth.

Derick P. Berlage, 49, who for months has vowed that he would fight to keep his job, told the planning agency's staff in a brief meeting that he would resign as soon as the County Council picks his successor. His term -- a four-year appointment by the council -- will expire next month.

"During the past several weeks, I have had discussions with many community leaders, friends and family, and I came to the conclusion that it was in the best interest of the agency for me to make the decision I made," Berlage said later in an interview.

Several council members had worried that Berlage was becoming an election-year liability and told him privately that he risked an embarrassing public defeat if he continued to seek a second term.

"It was going to be a bruising process. Derick recognized that a bruising process was not in the best interest of the agency," said Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), one of several council members who advised Berlage that they could not guarantee him a veto-proof seven votes.

Berlage still has supporters on the council, but several members made it clear that they were looking for someone else to lead the Department of Park and Planning. Berlage lost a key ally, council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who is running for county executive. Silverman had pushed for Berlage's appointment four years ago but has declined to do so again.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), a candidate for governor whose campaign has been tarnished by fallout from Clarksburg, appeared relieved.

Speaking on Washington Post Radio, he said Berlage's departure would open the way to new leadership at the planning agency, "and that's what we need."

Duncan has the power to veto the council's nomination.

Berlage, who as Planning Board chairman played a critical role in the hiring of top agency officials, has been a fixture in county political circles for more than a decade. A lawyer who formerly headed the council's land-use committee, Berlage was appointed to his chairman post in 2002. The agency, which has a budget of about $100 million, oversees the county's sprawling park system and the development of major housing and commercial projects.

Berlage has been viewed as an advocate for environmentally sensitive development and affordable housing. But his leadership drew attention in the past year after a community group found evidence of building irregularities at Clarksburg Town Center, a 1,200-home community under construction in northern Montgomery.

The planning agency staff and the Planning Board initially rejected the citizens group's complaints that the development was not being built as approved. But they eventually agreed with many of the findings.

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