The Montgomery County Council cleared the way yesterday to lift a freeze on issuance of building permits, imposed last week when questions arose about the county's oversight of the planning system.
The council rejected stringent short-term controls on development, but only after a heated debate that reflected political tensions over the recent discovery of building code violations at Clarksburg Town Center and the 2006 elections.
In the end, it unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution endorsing what county officials had already agreed to do: add staff and more clearly define the responsibilities of the two agencies that oversee development, the Planning Board and the Department of Permitting Services. The agencies have promised to provide regular reports to the council about their efforts.
With the two agencies agreeing to work together to assure that what is built matches the plans approved, issuance of permits could begin in a few weeks, officials said. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) had imposed the freeze last week after hundreds of Clarksburg houses were found to have been built too high or too close to the street.
Council members rejected a proposal that would have required each permit to undergo a month-long council review. Business leaders and developers argued that it would have amounted to a moratorium and crippled the construction industry.
The action followed a day-long hearing in which council members made it clear that more systematic changes might be needed this fall.
And members said they remained skeptical of the planning department's long-term ability to reform itself.
With the 2006 elections looming, the council session grew tense as members argued over how far they needed to go to show the public that they are keeping a watchful eye on the planning process.
And though Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) opened the meeting by urging everyone to avoid "finger-pointing," the politically charged environment made that difficult.
Council members demanded answers from Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage and Department of Permitting Services chief Robert Hubbard, who continued to shift blame over the failure to unearth the problems in Clarksburg.
Council member Michael S. Subin (D-At Large), lead sponsor of the proposal for a month-long review, accused Perez of trying to fix the problems in Clarksburg "in the dark of night."
Perez has had several meetings with county officials and residents of the northern Montgomery community.
Later, Subin had a heated exchange with leaders of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, saying they were mischaracterizing his bill as a moratorium. He said the business group uses "more inflammatory rhetoric than anyone in town."
A few minutes after that, council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), a candidate for county executive whose campaign treasury is flush with contributions from developers, grew testy when a civic activist said county leaders were to blame for the problems in Clarksburg because they have allowed the county to grow too quickly.
Council member Howard Denis (R-Bethesda) and three members of the Democratic End Gridlock slate in 2002 -- Subin, Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and Mike Knapp (D-Upcounty) -- sponsored the proposal for the month-long waiting period. Duncan organized the slate, and it was heavily funded by developers.
Their proposal needed six votes to pass because it was emergency legislation. But two sponsors, Floreen and Knapp, were on a trip to Israel.
That left Silverman and Subin as the main proponents. But developers, who mobilized 100 supporters to wear white shirts to the hearing, warned that the measure would face a court challenge. Civic activists also largely opposed it, saying it was shameless political posturing.
"This bill . . . is merely a fig leaf to provide political cover when campaign season rolls around," said Dolores Milmoe of the Audubon Naturalist Society.