The Montgomery County Council's attempt Tuesday to address problems in its planning system has generated more confusion and mistrust, several key players in the debate said yesterday.
Developers are frustrated with the county because it is unclear how long County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's freeze on the issuance of building permits will last. Council members, facing reelection campaigns in 2006, are skeptical that the agencies that oversee planning are up to the job. Community groups said their concerns about how the county will grow were lost in a marathon of political posturing by elected officials.
On Tuesday, the council, in an attempt to address widespread violations of height and setback rules in Clarksburg Town Center, rejected proposals that could have extended the freeze of permits imposed last week by Duncan (D).
Instead, it passed a nonbinding resolution that appeared to open the possibility of a lifting of the freeze. But it was unclear yesterday how long the freeze on building permits in certain areas would last. Builders said it will have consequences for the industry.
"We did not get a precise and specific answer about how long it will take. It is an indeterminate building freeze," said Susan Matlick, a spokeswoman for the Maryland-National Capital Building Association. "Builders . . . want certainty. This leaves all of those issues hanging out there -- loans, interest rates, when things can start and houses can be built."
Efforts yesterday to reach Duncan, who was campaigning for governor in Southern Maryland, were unsuccessful, but his spokesman said last night that Duncan supported the council's resolution. Derick Berlage, the chairman of the Planning Board, said that he couldn't provide a specific timetable for resuming the issuance of the permits but that he and the Department of Permitting Services are devising a thorough system for preventing future cases like that in Clarksburg.
"We are going to take however long we need to get it right," he said.
Community activists yesterday expressed a growing concern that politics, not policy, are driving efforts to fix the system. They said a day of discussion and speeches resulted only in a nonbinding resolution that summarized what county administrators already were doing.
"The whole thing is a political game, from what I witnessed yesterday," said Amy Presley, a leader of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee.
The political environment also is frustrating to developers, who said they have been unfairly targeted for the planning mistakes in Clarksburg. While they concede that they share part of the blame, they said county officials knew of the adjustments to the plans in Clarksburg but turned on the development community when the issue became a public embarrassment.
"We are going to do a pretty strong measure of self-policing," said Clark Wagner, a vice president of Bozzuto Homes, a major developer in Montgomery County that is building 175 condominium units in Clarksburg.
The council, which began its summer recess yesterday, will return in the fall to an agenda replete with measures affecting growth and development. In September, the council's office of legislative oversight is expected to issue results from its probe into what went wrong in Clarksburg and whether it is a part of a larger pattern of official neglect.
About the same time, the council will consider a long-range plan that could allow 6,300 houses to be built near the Shady Grove Metro station between Rockville and Gaithersburg.
In October, the council will consider its biennial growth policy, which some civic activists see as a possible vehicle for slowing growth.
Also, the council will debate a plan to allow megachurches, which seat thousands, to be built in the county's agricultural preserve and whether 1,600 homes can be built in downtown Bethesda in the Woodmont Triangle. A fight is brewing over efforts to curb so-called McMansionization in neighborhoods closer to the Capital Beltway.
The Clarksburg situation, some council members say, could spill over into those debates, presenting challenges for some elected officials and opportunities for those council members who have advocated stricter controls on development.
"I think what happens in Clarksburg argues for a more deliberate approach to growth," said Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville).
Other council members are worried that public skepticism over the planning process will lead to bad policy decisions in the fall.
"My concern is somebody might say, 'You can't handle planning permitting. How can we trust the planning staff when they say, don't worry, we can put 1,600 housing units in Bethesda?' " Silverman said.