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Montgomery County weighs Clarksburg development interests

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; B01

Patrick Darby wants to open a bookstore in Clarksburg's historic district, a short walk from thousands of homes springing up nearby. Victor Peeke would like to sell his historic house, which used to be a doctor's office. Niki Lewis, who owns an organic market, says if more stores can open, she can attract more customers.

But the property owners face a complex set of problems that defies a quick fix. Most of the 40-odd buildings in the northern Montgomery County community's historic downtown lack a public sewer system, something most Washington area residents take for granted. And the chances of getting the pipes installed anytime soon are linked to another problem: stream pollution caused by development in another part of Clarksburg known for construction irregularities.

For Darby, getting hooked into public sewer would allow him to open the bookstore he has dreamed of in a house that has been in his family since the early 20th century. If he financed the entire installation himself, he says he would have to pay about $400,000.

Other possible fixes, such as tapping into existing sewer lines in nearby developments, are possible, but would require construction of a pumping station -- a costly proposition for government and property owners. But if Darby can tap into lines financed by new development, he can save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"They say, 'Hang in there, we'll make it happen,' " Darby said, describing the response from local officials. "I have been hearing that for five years now."

When officials will make it happen is unclear. That is because county scientists said in a report last year that nearby Ten Mile Creek and its watershed had been harmed by soil and debris from the rows and rows of townhouses, apartments and single-family homes in new developments near Clarksburg's historic downtown.

That means that county officials, who more than two decades ago promised to reassess new development if environmental problems were discovered, must tread carefully before approving construction in the area, including a proposed county Ride-On bus depot, more housing and a commercial center. No new development means no sewer lines for the small businesses to tap into.

"Until these property owners can get public sewer, there is not a whole lot they can do to upgrade them or spruce them up, because they are limited to what they can do on their existing septic system," said Alan Soukup, the senior planner in the county's environment department who is looking for solutions.

Classic dilemma

The issue poses a classic dilemma for local government. If Montgomery decides to delay or prohibit more development in the area because of pollution problems, that might help water quality but could harm efforts to revive historic Clarksburg. If the county allows more development, the small businesses might thrive, but the region's drinking water might suffer. That adds up to a lot of anxiety for officials, especially in this election year.

The political sensitivity became evident last year, when county scientists collected data that highlighted the problems, but the administration of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) withheld their report for several months, finally issuing it in January 2009 after the findings were first reported by The Washington Post.

That report provided no guarantees that yet-to-be installed stormwater treatment systems, delayed because of the construction controversies in the new part of Clarksburg, could help protect Ten Mile Creek. The scientists listed options: limit development; insist on different construction practices and building designs; or toughen requirements for stormwater runoff in sensitive areas such as the Ten Mile Creek watershed.

Ultimately, the decision is up to the County Council, whose nine members, like Leggett, are running for reelection this year.

County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who represents the area, persuaded the council to let him set up a study group to examine the environmental challenges and propose possible fixes.

"The group's charge was to give us feedback as to what the new [state] stormwater regulations are going to mean, to give us some sense of what the implications are of the new rules," Knapp said. "We need guidance. We need information to help us make a better decision," he said.

But the task force, which includes scientists, water-quality experts, engineers and architects, has found it difficult to come to a consensus, even failing to agree on whether members should vote on the proposals before them. Instead, the group is drafting its report and contemplating sending a list of options to the council.

'Back where we started'

"We are back where we started," said Mike McCann of Pulte Homes, who was not on the panel but sat in on the group's meetings, which stretched over five months. Pulte wants to develop a large tract in the area.

Council members, who will be guided by requirements of the 1994 Clarksburg Master Plan, might take up the issue this spring. Among their options would be rezoning undeveloped areas to put new limits on development; delaying development, including the bus depot, until there is more information on the ability of damaged waterways to recover; requiring additional water-quality safeguards from builders; insisting on more environmentally friendly designs, such as clustered housing; or moving ahead with existing plans.

Carl Elefante, an architect who is co-chairman of the panel with Diane Cameron of the Audubon Naturalist Society, said he hopes the group can research more options before presenting the report to the council.

"I know that there are examples of development around the country and the world, development in extremely environmentally sensitive places," he said.

But the challenge, he said, is finding them and then determining whether similar practices would protect Ten Mile Creek. If they do, then Darby might get water and sewer and be able to open his bookstore. Peeke might be able to sell his property, because buyers would have an easier time obtaining bank financing if they know there is public sewer. Lewis, who has public sewer, would benefit from the additional foot traffic the other businesses would generate.

"There definitely is a market here," Darby said.

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