The former Montgomery County official accused of altering plans to show that a Clarksburg housing development complied with building codes said yesterday that she made an honest mistake, caused by an unmanageable workload and a complicated subdivision review process.
Meanwhile, questions about how hundreds of houses in the new Clarksburg Town Center were built in apparent violation of height and setback requirements continued to mount as residents demanded a more thorough investigation than the one planned by county officials.
The dispute over Clarksburg -- once a northern Montgomery crossroads that has tripled in population, to 5,500, over the past five years -- reflects broad concerns about the county's ability to effectively manage rapid growth in its rural tier.
The legally binding site plan for the Clarksburg Town Center stated that townhouses were to be no taller than 35 feet. However, earlier plans and staff reports set the limit at four stories, or about 40 feet. When county planner Wynn Witthans discovered what she said she thought was an error in the site plan, she scratched out 35 feet and wrote in four stories. Her decision led the County Planning Board to rule in April that the townhouses in the new development met the 35-foot restriction.
"I thought I was just editing to make sure everything conformed to the staff report," said Witthans, who resigned two weeks ago after 10 years with the county. She added that she was never ordered to change the plans.
"I thought it was the right thing to do, and it was not the right thing to do," she said. "I just wanted to correct it."
A five-hour Planning Board hearing on the matter is scheduled for tomorrow.
A key question involves who is responsible for ensuring that developers abide by county rules. In Clarksburg Town Center, it appears that the board was responsible.
The site plan agreement between the county and the developer, Newland Communities of San Diego, specifies that Planning Board staff members were to make three inspections of each phase of the 1,300-unit project, now half complete.
Planning officials maintain that the county Department of Permitting Services, which issues building permits, bears some responsibility. They also say it is unrealistic to assume the planning department can scrutinize every detail of a subdivision.
"We do not go out and measure every building and never have," said Rose Krasnow, chief of the planning department's development review section.
Part of the confusion stems from the complicated process of approving a new subdivision. Before a development can move forward, the board receives at least three separate plans. Staff also prepare reports that accompany formal plans.
Moreover, staff can make additional changes through "staff amendments" that don't require public hearings or a vote by the board.
According to officials, initial plans for Clarksburg Town Center stated that residential buildings could be four stories or 45 feet. But when the developer submitted the site plan in 1998, the height requirements in the official report were 35 feet for townhouses and 45 feet for multi-family buildings. The staff report, however, continued to maintain the limits were four stories.
Witthans said she was just trying to get the site plans to conform to the staff report and earlier plans. Although she now concedes that was improper, she said her hectic workload, driven by the crush of development in the county, contributed to her actions.
Krasnow, the former mayor of Rockville, said she understands Witthans's frustrations. "I have . . . the most overworked and understaffed division that I have ever been associated with."
Planning officials are expected to recommend that the board fine Newland and five builders about $1.2 million. That would be one of the largest penalties ever levied against a developer in Montgomery County, Krasnow said.
But residents who uncovered the violations want a steeper penalty and a broader inquiry into how the subdivision was planned and built.
According to the plans, Newland was responsible for building a tree-lined walkway, connecting the new homes with Clarksburg United Methodist Church and the rest of the town's historic district.
Amy Presley, a Clarksburg resident, said that area is "now nothing but an asphalt street with townhouses flanking each row."
Presley wants the board to review the matter as well as whether Newland has been too slow to build promised amenities. The site plan states that "all community wide facilities" must be completed before the 540th building permit is issued. Officials said Newland has finished at least 700 homes.
Calls to Newland were not returned yesterday.