Kim Shiley just wanted to be able to walk to an upscale grocery store or a restaurant.
In the fall of 2003, Shiley was lured to the rolling countryside of Northern Montgomery County by promises that a new community would soon sprout. The plans for Clarksburg Town Center, she said, included a compact neighborhood built around fashionable stores and eateries.
It was, she thought, to be like Bethesda, Silver Spring or some of the neighborhoods of Northwest Washington.
"This is the type of community I always wanted to live in," Shiley said of the development, which at the time was a project of Terrabrook. "It seemed like a perfect mix of urban and rural."
Shiley, a nurse for the federal Public Health Service who paid $350,000 for her townhouse, soon had a crush of neighbors. In the past five years, Clarksburg's population has nearly tripled, to 5,500.
Amy Presley, 42, moved into a single-family house she bought for a half-million dollars. Lynn Fantle, 35, got her four-bedroom house for $400,000. Tim DeArros, 42, bought a townhouse for just under $300,000. Niren Nagda, 59, paid $430,000 for his townhouse, and Carol Smith, 50, paid $415,715 for hers.
"We were just under the impression that this would [have] cute little shops, and it was a big draw for us," Smith said.
But when these residents saw a threat to their vision of how the community should look, Smith and the others formed the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee.
Although Montgomery County has some 1,200 active community and neighborhood associations, few can match the Clarksburg committee in forcefully taking on the county bureaucracy.
Longtime civic activists say the committee is responsible for the worst crisis to face the Montgomery County planning system in decades.
"I think they are unsung heroes, it is that simple," said Cari Lamari, past president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation.
County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) also applauded the group's efforts. "They spent a lot more time and did a lot more work than I think any community should ever be expected to do," he said. "But because they did, they exposed some real problems in our system."
In the past month:
* The Planning Board has ruled that hundreds of houses in Clarksburg Town Center violate height and setback requirements.
* A senior planning coordinator has resigned after it was discovered that she improperly altered a site plan before a hearing on the height violations.
* County planning officials have conceded they are ill-equipped to enforce the rules developers are supposed to follow, raising broad questions about the county's ability to manage growth.
But while elected officials and community activists credit the committee with exposing flaws in Montgomery's system for managing growth and development, the panel's tactics have sharply divided what was supposed to be the county's model for a 21st-century suburb.
"We have a small group of people with an agenda," said George Spanos, who recently bought a house in the neighborhood. "This small group is supposed to speak for Clarksburg, when they speak for themselves."
And Clarksburg's developers say they've done nothing wrong. Officials of Newland Communities note that the Department of Permitting Services, which is overseen by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), had to sign off on every building permit issued in Clarksburg.
Newland officials said they are committed to delivering the promised amenities. "We are interested in moving forward and renewing communication with the community and being good partners and working with them," company spokesman Charlie Maier said last week.
The residents' activism dates back to the spring of 2004, when Shiley and others grew concerned about Newland's plans for the town center, which the company had begun to circulate. The San Diego-based developer had bought out locally based Terrabrook in October 2003.
"People looked at the plans and said, 'It's not a town center, it's a strip mall,' " DeArros recalled.
Last July, the developer scheduled a community meeting to discuss the plans. More than 100 angry Clarksburg residents showed up.
"It reminded me of the peasants with the pitchforks and shovels beating on the castle door," DeArros said.
Newland officials urged the residents to find a dozen or so people to become community leaders who could work with the company to reach a compromise. The volunteers: Presley, a consultant who specializes in new business development; Shiley; Fantle, a self-employed writer; DeArros, a project management consultant; Nagda, a retired indoor air quality consultant; and Smith, who works at the National Institutes of Health.
"We were all committed to the cause," Nagda said.
On evenings, weekends and in the early mornings, the group strategized or spent hours trying to piece together how Newland was building their community.
They estimate that together they put in 700 hours and spent several thousand dollars of their own money over the past year to hire a lawyer and pay for copies of every public document -- site plans, architectural drawings and planning officials' e-mails -- on the Clarksburg Town Center.
Shiley estimates that she used 20 days of leave to pursue the investigation. Presley quit working this spring -- giving up a $4,000-a-week client -- so she could spend 40 hours a week reviewing documents at Planning Board headquarters in Silver Spring. The other committee members crammed in hours working on the issue whenever they could.
"It was never my intent to be a full-time activist," Presley said. "But the way it worked, I just focused all my attention on it."
The group members, upset because they thought county officials were rebuffing them, began assembling evidence that things were going dramatically wrong with their community.
For example, the group discovered that that nearly all the townhouses in their development appeared to be too high. The official site plan drawings, submitted by the developer, said the units were supposed to be 35 feet tall. But the group suspected many far exceeded that limit.
They also noticed that dozens of homes looked curiously close to the street, although the Planning Board said in 1995 that houses had to be at least 10 feet from the roadway.
There were other problems, too. The plans for the community called for a park-like walkway to the Clarksburg United Methodist Church in the historic district. The walkway was to feature a statue of the first settler of the area, John G. Clark.
The walkway, which Del. Jean B. Cryor (R-Montgomery) said was a critical reason behind the planners' decision to allow the development to go forward in the 1990s, was to have connected the new neighborhood with the Clarksburg historic district.
The residents discovered that the planned walkway had been turned into a street lined with townhouses. And a large dirt mound separated the development from the historic district.
"We didn't realize until having to be forced to go through all these legal documents that this was happening," Presley said.
Newland officials said they had permission from planning officials to build townhouses as high as four stories. As for the walkway, Newland officials said planning officials agreed years ago that it didn't need to be part of the project.
Nevertheless, the residents convinced the Planning Board to hold a hearing on the height issue in April.
"Our concern was if they got away with the heights, when it came time to do the retail, anything goes," Smith said.
At the hearing, Wynn Witthans, the county planner charged with overseeing the community, produced a site plan that had "four stories" written on it in black marker. The board used that site plan to rule 4 to 1 that there were no height violations.
A few weeks later, Shiley was rifling through the mounds of documents the group had collected on the development and discovered another site plan. There was nothing written in black marker on that plan. Instead, the data table stated that residential units could be no taller than 35 feet, and multifamily buildings could be as high as 45 feet.
The group then confronted county planning director Charles R. Loehr about the apparent discrepancy. A few days later, Loehr admitted that the site plan had been altered.
Witthans resigned three weeks ago. In an interview last week, she said she made a mistake brought on by the stress of her heavy workload. She said she was merely trying to bring the site plan into compliance with her staff's opinion and with earlier board decisions.
Because of the altered document, the Planning Board agreed to reconsider its previous decision that there were no height violations. Last week, the board ruled after a 10-hour hearing that 433 townhouses were built too high and that another 102 houses sit too close to the street.
The board could issue more than $1 million in fines against Newland and four builders at a July 28 hearing.
But not all Clarksburg Town Center residents are happy with the group's efforts.
Some, especially those who live in the townhouses that exceed height limits, accuse the committee of exaggerating the extent of the problems. Those residents say committee members have effectively driven a wedge between neighbors that will be hard to overcome. In fact, the committee's persistence on the height issue forced county officials to suspend issuing occupancy permits last month for townhouses that were believed to be too tall. That left dozens of residents nearly homeless for more than a month, although the Planning Board ruled last week that they can now move in.
"They do not represent the community," said James Richard, 30, who recently bought a home in the development.
Besides, Richard and some other residents note, they like their new homes. Because the townhouses are an extra few feet tall, the developer has been able to put in higher ceilings -- a feature real estate agents say is a big draw to potential homebuyers.
"We believe we will not take away from the historical nature of Town Center," said resident Amy Friece.
Katherine Orloff, 58, who was kept out of her new home until the Planning Board acted, said she suspects most residents of Clarksburg "have no idea this is going on."
But the leaders of the committee vow to keep on fighting. They are pushing for another Planning Board hearing on whether the developer improperly paved over the planned walkway to the historic district. The committee is also pushing for dramatic fines -- well over $1 million -- and other sanctions against Newland Communities and four builders.
And, of course, the issue of how the town center will eventually look still must be resolved.
At a recent meeting at Presley's house, group members indicated that they are more than up to the fight.
Kathy Holly, a member of the Clarksburg Civic Association, which represents the older and more rural parts of the community, told the committee that most community groups would have "just went away" if faced with a similar challenge.
Then, almost on cue, the group responded in unison, "We didn't go away."