Clarksburg was Montgomery County's model of the 21st-century suburb.
"The final frontier" is how the county's 1994 master plan described it: a series of quaint subdivisions built around a pedestrian-friendly town center with specialty shops, cafes, trails and a grocery store.
People bought in. Home buyers, drawn by low interest rates available to buyers at the time and relatively moderate prices, flocked to the tiny northern Montgomery community, where horses and livestock outnumbered residents as recently as 10 years ago.
"We were buying into a lifestyle and an ideal," said Lynn Fantle, who in 2002 purchased a $400,000 house in Clarksburg Town Center.
But the road to the reinvented suburb has gotten bumpy. There are numerous signs that Montgomery officials were ill-prepared to oversee the pace and scope of change in Clarksburg, where the population has nearly tripled to 5,500 in the past five years. In 20 years, it is expected to reach more than 40,000.
Last week, the county acknowledged that hundreds of homes in the new Clarksburg Town Center were built in apparent violation of height and setback requirements. There is also evidence that a planning staff member improperly altered a site plan to show that developers were complying with the regulations.
Officials announced that an outside investigator will be hired to review the county's procedures for approving subdivision plans. A planning department report recommends the developer and builders be fined about $1.2 million. Residents want a much stiffer penalty.
There are other problems. Roads are crowded, and some of the planned walkways have been turned into streets. Officials said the developer has allowed new owners to move in without occupancy permits from the county. Residents said units priced for low- and middle-income buyers, which developers are required to include, have been concentrated in one area, which would violate county regulations.
Montgomery's Fire & Rescue Service has warned for months that a tragedy is waiting to happen in Clarksburg because the fire station serving the town is too far away.
Last week, it took firefighters nearly 14 minutes, twice the acceptable standard, to respond to a family that had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, according to County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty).
Residents said they are waiting for the amenities they were promised -- the retail, the cafes, the upscale grocery shopping. They charged that the developer, Newland Communities of San Diego, is trying to build a conventional suburban strip mall with a Giant supermarket.
"It says in the master plan these shops should be places of distinction where people can congregate," said Carol Smith, who bought a townhouse in 2003. "Who wants to go get groceries in the Giant and then sit on the sidewalk and talk to neighbors?"
The past president of the Clarksburg Civic Association, Steve Howie, said: "In a county that prides itself on planning, one would think Clarksburg would be the picture of perfection." He added, "I don't think you are seeing that."
Newland, which eventually is expected to build 1,300 single-family homes, townhouses and condominiums in Clarksburg, said everything is going according to plan, even though the corporate vice president overseeing the project resigned several weeks ago. A spokesman said her departure was unrelated to Clarksburg.
"We are proud of this community and believe it will be a model for Montgomery County," said spokesman Charles Maier.
Critics said that the years of attention and resources lavished on southern Montgomery by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and the council -- which produced, among other things, the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring and the $100 million Music Center at Strathmore -- has left the largely rural north to grow without adequate oversight or planning and has handed builders such as Newland too much power.
"Clarksburg is proof Montgomery County is developer-driven," said Hillary Kirchman, a five-year resident.
The issue has left Duncan and the council in a defensive crouch, pointing fingers and demanding investigations.
"Who is in charge?" Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) asked last week, after learning of the building violations. "We need to ask who is accountable. Who is calling the shots?"
Knapp, who represents the area that includes Clarksburg, puts part of the blame on Duncan.
"I think there was an assumption that to do redevelopment was more difficult, and I don't think people were paying attention to the challenges of a new community," Knapp said. "There was an assumption this is all new [in Clarksburg], so how hard can it be?"
Duncan, whose 2002 reelection on the "End Gridlock" slate was financed heavily by developers, said much of what has gone wrong in Clarksburg is a matter for the county Planning Board, which is overseen by the council. He has, nevertheless, designated an assistant county administrator, Scott W. Reilly, to troubleshoot the town's development.
He noted that it took years for the infrastructure in Germantown, another fast-growing northern Montgomery municipality, to catch up with its building boom in the 1980s and 1990s. He said Clarksburg residents need to be patient.
"When you are talking about building a town of 30,000, it's not going to be full of amenities on the day the first person moves in," said Duncan, who is widely expected to seek the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. "It's not like you are moving into Silver Spring or Bethesda that's been around for" decades.
The apparent code violations, uncovered by a group of Clarksburg residents, exposed confusion over which county agency is responsible for enforcing building standards in subdivisions under construction.
Part of the confusion might be attributable to Clarksburg's status under county regulations as a "floating zone," a designation that gives developers greater latitude to be creative.
In these zones, created primarily in areas earmarked for a combination of commercial and residential uses, the county Department of Park and Planning is responsible for enforcing height and setback requirements. The planning department, an offshoot of the county planning board, reports to the County Council.
But in the case of Clarksburg Town Center, officials in the planning department said they thought the Department of Permitting Services, overseen by Duncan, was responsible.
Rose Krasnow, chief of the planning department's Development Review Division, said her office probably wouldn't have caught the builders' mistakes even if she had known it was her responsibility.
"I have three inspectors for the entire county, so we are basically a complaint-driven process," Krasnow said.
Officials said there are ample signs of progress. A middle school opened in the area last year, and a high school is under construction. Roads are being expanded, and a library is planned. Duncan and council members said another fire station will be built soon.
Still, some officials said they wonder whether the difficulties in Clarksburg are an aberration or the consequences of a larger pattern of official neglect.
"Is this something that is slowly happening in Montgomery County and more corners are being cut?" asked Del. Jean B. Cryor (R-Montgomery), who plans to look into the matter. "I never thought I would see this."