Controversies consume Clarksburg Town Center

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; B01

It was to be a model suburb, a chance for Montgomery County to get it right. In Clarksburg Town Center, the vision was for an intimate, walkable community, shops, a library, restaurants and public transportation close by. Home buyers, attracted by large houses with relatively moderate prices at low interest rates, were drawn to the northern Montgomery community, even camping out overnight for the chance to buy the home of their dreams.

But for many, the promise of Clarksburg Town Center remains unrealized. More than 10 years after ground was broken, and more than five years after a group of residents unearthed construction irregularities by developer Newland Communities, county officials and residents remain mired in disputes over how to push the project over the finish line.

The latest round of angry assertions and counterclaims involves issues that arose long after the initial controversy in 2005 made Clarksburg shorthand for lax oversight, in a county with a long-standing reputation for good government.

The promised retail core, which was to be the centerpiece of the development, is still a mound of dirt. The county fire and rescue service, prodded by residents, has forced the developer to spend about $1 million to widen turns and restrict parking in 19 spots because firetrucks could not get through. Activists found that more than $2 million in promised landscaping was never done. County government and residents remain divided over who should foot the bill for roads, parks and a library. Newland says tough economic times have caught up with it, making it hard to attract interest in developing the retail center. A dispute over how much parking should be available to shoppers and residents is still festering.

To add to the tension, Newland sued community activists last year, saying they have thwarted the development. Arbitrator Barbara Kerr Howe has mostly kept the matter behind closed doors, so the details and outcome may never be publicly known.

"One would think that by now we would have gotten a little closer to agreeing on all the things that need to happen," said Kathy Mitchell, the county's Clarksburg ombudsman, who has held the post for almost three years but who will be out of work Jan. 31 because of budget constraints.

New allegations

On Thursday, the Montgomery County Planning Board, whose previous leadership had been criticized for allowing buildings in Clarksburg Town Center that were too tall, front yards that were too small and streets that were too narrow, will weigh in on a recent round of accusations by its staff against Newland.

In a biting assessment of the developer's latest proposal, planner Robert Kronenberg last month cited more than 400 instances in which the developer made unilateral and unapproved changes to plans for the community. If the board agrees with Kronenberg, the company could face thousands of dollars in fines that the county agreed to forgo five years ago.

Douglas C. Delano, a Newland vice president overseeing the Clarksburg Town Center development, sounded a conciliatory tone. "We want to get this done," he said after submitting three boxes of newly revised plans to Kronenberg late last week.

"We share the concern that there be no errors or discrepancies in the plans," he said. "That's what got Clarksburg in trouble four or five years ago."

'A real education'

Residents say no matter who is at fault, it's time for the project to be completed.

Emily Lederer, who with her husband moved into Clarksburg Town Center almost eight years ago, said she and many of her neighbors are eager for an end to the controversies.

"It is definitely confusing and frustrating," she said. "Everybody moved in here on the assumption that these amenities would be built not too far after the time we moved in. . . . It's hard to see that big, empty spot with the big dirt mound."

Robert Rifkin moved with his wife from nearby Derwood three years ago, fully aware of the controversies. "I guess we were naive. We thought that once the county knew about this, and these mistakes were made, the county would make things right.

"From this experience, I will never move into a community that is not completed. We could not trust what was told to us. It has been a real education," he said.

County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), whose district includes Clarksburg, said there have been some positive signs in recent years. A park has opened, roads have been completed and a middle school is on the drawing board, because of community pressure.

"We have made some progress, but it continues to be an amazingly frustrating effort because there are so many things that are unresolved," he said.

Knapp said he thinks the Planning Board will insist that the developer comply with plans the board approved two years ago, which the planning staff says Newland recently altered without permission.

"It is frustrating for the residents and it is frustrating for us," he said. Kronenberg's list, Knapp said, suggests the developer might have made changes to the plans that "are pretty egregious. It's not just that things were not reflected in the right way, that we put a line in the wrong place or we forgot to put this number here."

Other problems

In addition to Kronenberg's assertions, there are other loose ends.

The county government has yet to impose the "development district" tax to repay the developer about $60 million for constructing roads and sidewalks. Many residents say they will sue if the county makes them shoulder the expense, saying they were not sufficiently warned that it would be their responsibility.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and the County Council have squabbled over who should take the next step -- the executive branch or the council -- to impose the tax, a move that holds political risk this election year.

"How do you impose an additional tax on anybody right now?" asked Knapp, who has tried unsuccessfully to get his council colleagues to kill the tax in Clarksburg. He said he plans to try again soon.

Environmental challenges also loom. Tougher state requirements for the management of stormwater runoff, and county scientists' findings a year ago that the new developments in northern Montgomery appear to have degraded local waterways, threaten further development in Clarksburg. Particularly at risk is a long-planned major commercial center outside the boundaries of Clarksburg Town Center.

To assess the environmental risk of more development, county officials have asked the Planning Board to take another look at the master plan for the area, which could take at least a year.

The prospect of convenient public transportation is also far in the future. County plans show that it would be no closer than a former office complex a few miles south. Clarksburg High School, which opened in 2006, is already crowded, even though several thousand homes still could be built in a network of villages that includes Clarksburg Town Center.

Residents hope that at least some of the controversies will subside soon, and are eager to see what the Planning Board does Thursday.

Lederer said her family has enjoyed living in the community and intends to stay. Lederer, her husband and two children have formed bonds with many neighbors. They have attended numerous community events -- everything from pool parties to a happy hour to a pumpkin fest -- and were thrilled when the county opened an elementary school nearby three years ago.

Yes, she wishes she could walk to a grocery store or a restaurant rather than hop in the car every time.

"The overall bitterness can be felt," she said. But the palpable sense of community still makes life good.

"There is more that keeps me here beyond the Town Center," she said.

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