The Montgomery County Council reversed course yesterday and asked county officials, instead of an outside investigator, to determine whether the planning of new construction has been tainted by officials' mismanagement or developers' disregard for the rules.
Responding to a case that has raised broad questions about the county's ability to manage growth, council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) ordered the Office of Legislative Oversight to begin a review of how Clarksburg Town Center was built.
Last week, the county Planning Board acknowledged that hundreds of houses in the fast-growing northern Montgomery community were recently built in violation of height and setback requirements.
The council, which didn't formally vote on the matter, also requested a separate review of subdivisions approved since 2002 to see whether they were built in accordance with plans. It asked the Planning Board and Department of Permitting Services -- two agencies at the center of the controversy -- to handle that inquiry.
The decisions to back away from outside scrutiny were promptly criticized yesterday.
"This approach taken by the council just seeds the widespread fears of the average citizen that the system is rigged against them," said Norm Knopf, an attorney for the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, the group that uncovered the violations in the large housing development.
"Citizens believe if you dig deep, you will find a connection between bad planning, the developers and council members . . . and the process of huge sums of money that go into campaign funds."
Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) also wanted an outside investigator for reviews. Last week, she sent an e-mail to her colleagues that said the Planning Board should not be involved in conducting an investigation "because of questions it would raise about checking their own work."
In the Clarksburg case, the selection of the Office of Legislative Oversight, which works independently but reports to the council, comes two weeks after county leaders pledged to hire an investigator.
"We want prompt results. We want accurate results, and we want fair results," Perez said. "The Office of Legislative Oversight is in the best position to deliver promptness, accuracy and fairness."
Several council members said it would take too long for outside investigators to get up to speed.
"The more you peel away the layers of the onion, the more layers we find," said council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who represents Clarksburg. "So I think it is critically important that a review start as soon as possible."
After the height violations were uncovered, planners said they thought the Department of Permitting Services, which issues building permits, was responsible for checking building heights. Officials at the permitting agency said they thought the Planning Board, overseen by the County Council, was responsible.
The county's inspector general could launch his own review of the matter, but Perez cautioned against the move until the Office of Legislative Oversight, whose past work has been widely praised, completes its work. Thomas Dagley, the inspector general, did not return phone calls yesterday.
After keeping his distance from the matter for the past two weeks, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) spoke out yesterday. Duncan, whose 2006 gubernatorial campaign is heavily financed by developers, called for "significant and meaningful penalties" to be levied in the Clarksburg case.
Last week, the Planning Board ruled that 433 townhouses exceed height violations and 102 houses were built too close to the street. The board will consider fining the developer, Newland Communities, and four builders July 28.
Duncan also called for a moratorium on "floating zones," a designation given to Clarksburg Town Center and other projects in the county in which builders are granted unusual leeway to be creative. Critics say the zones create sections of the county where developers are all but in charge.
Derick Berlage, chairman of the Planning Board, said the suggestion was unrealistic because many projects -- including some championed by Duncan -- are in such zones.