A July 20 Metro article implied that the Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services should have been checking development site plans. The department does not have the authority to check site plans. Under current rules, only the county Planning Board has the authority to do so. (Published 7/21/2005)

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's decision to temporarily halt some commercial and residential development poses a political risk for a candidate whose plans to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next year depend on dominating the primary vote in his home county.

The freeze on issuance of building permits, which Duncan announced Monday in response to evidence that hundreds of new homes in Clarksburg violate county building codes, has been greeted harshly both by developers and by members of Montgomery's vocal slow-growth and anti-growth constituencies.

It carried the scent of political damage control, critics said, an attempt to moderate a staunch pro-growth record and distance himself from a thick portfolio of campaign contributions from builders and developers.

"I think he sees a political problem in being so closely allied with developers at this point, and he is jettisoning them," said County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), a frequent critic of Duncan's growth policies.

"There is great concern . . . over what I perceive to be quick fixes to support a very complicated process," said Raquel Montenegro, associate director of the Maryland National Capital Building Association.

Duncan is in Honolulu this week attending a national conference of county officials. His spokesman said he is focused on fixing problems in the county's regulation of construction, not on the governor's race.

"The county executive is looking for a way to fix the problem immediately," said David Weaver, a Duncan spokesman. "He felt it was reasonable and fair to put a freeze on the issuance of building permits in site plans until we could verify that builders were complying with height and setback restrictions."

Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) said Duncan had little choice but to act swiftly to respond to "a crisis in confidence" in the permitting system.

"I don't believe his decision was politically motivated," Silverman said. "I think he looked at this and said: 'We have a problem. What are we going to do to solve it?' "

County officials expect that it will take one to two months for the Department of Permitting Services and the Planning Board to implement a system that ensures that developments requiring site plans do not violate building standards.

The freeze will affect about 200 building permits for multi-unit residential and commercial projects awaiting official approval in zones requiring site plans.

Under the current system, the Planning Board approves site plans. The Department of Permitting Services, overseen by Duncan, issues building permits. But Permitting Services was issuing building permits without checking the site plans.

The political problem, Andrews said, is that the anti-growth community is a sizeable constituency in Montgomery, and Duncan needs overwhelming support among county Democrats to have any chance of prevailing in a tough statewide primary.

Duncan strategists predict he will need to win more than two-thirds of the county's Democratic voters to prevail in a primary against his likely opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. The recent signs of lax oversight in the county's fast-growing northern tier are likely to further embolden the O'Malley camp in its efforts to make inroads into Duncan's Montgomery base. In recent days, O'Malley forces have been circulating the results of internal polling that shows Duncan with less than the two-thirds threshold.

Lanny Davis, a former Clinton administration official with deep roots in Montgomery Democratic politics, said yesterday that Duncan's decision to freeze construction will cost him.

"It just strikes me as an over-the-top reaction that only leads to pandering to a certain constituency," said Davis, who held a reception for O'Malley at his home last year and endorsed him yesterday. "It looks like Doug Duncan is trying to appeal to people who want to stop all new development, which is really inconsistent with where he has been."

If the intent of the moratorium was to win Duncan new political allies, there were signs yesterday it was not working.

"This is nothing more than an attempt at political cover your [rear]," said Drew Powell, who is part of a group that has maintained a Web site cataloguing the political donations Duncan gets from developers. "In the end, it will mean nothing. He will continue to do their bidding."

Since his election in 1994, Duncan has governed largely as a pro-business Democrat. He has pushed for the construction of the proposed intercounty connector, redeveloped downtown Silver Spring and worked to build one of the nation's largest biotech corridors.

Business leaders and developers have responded, pouring millions of dollars into his campaigns. Duncan has used the money not only to scare off potential challengers but also to help elect a Democratic council majority in 2002 that supported the intercounty connector.

The development industry also is underwriting Duncan's bid for governor. In January, he received 14 checks of $4,000 from business entities controlled by or affiliated with the Gudelksy Co., a real estate and development firm. The year before, Francis O. Day III, a Rockville developer, donated $75,000 to Duncan through members of Day's family and about a dozen companies controlled by him, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Though slow-growth advocates say Duncan's big-money contributors are one reason they are migrating to O'Malley, a number of the county's more seasoned politicians said yesterday that they don't see any reason for Duncan to run away from long-standing relationships with developers.

Former state senator Laurence Levitan said that when it comes to a statewide race, parochial concerns about development give way to the broader policy concerns that drive voters.

Sen. P.J. Hogan (D-Montgomery) agreed.

"I don't see attracting businesses and jobs to the county as an Achilles' heel," Hogan said.