In a county whose leaders all but worship planning, Derick Berlage is the high priest.
No one has more influence over the pace and location of development in Montgomery County. As Planning Board chairman, Berlage oversees the Department of Park and Planning, the $92 million-a-year agency that manages parkland and regulates development. The five-member board devises land-use policy subject to County Council approval.
That is why responsibility for the problems unfolding in Clarksburg -- where a developer and four builders constructed hundreds of townhouses that are too tall and too close to the street, in violation of a legally binding site plan -- might come to rest with Berlage.
Widely admired for his commitment to "smart growth," affordable housing and the preservation of Montgomery's rural areas, Berlage has led the planning board with fairness and vision, his defenders have said.
But council members and others question how effectively he has run the department's day-to-day operations. One department staff member improperly altered a planning document in April and later resigned. "The issue in Clarksburg has been one of management and implementation," County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said. "As head of Park and Planning, that's where that leadership has fallen down."
Gus Bauman, who served as board chairman from 1989 to 1993, said the position demands "decisive executive ability." Asked whether Berlage has that ability, Bauman said: "That's for the council to decide."
On Tuesday, Berlage appeared before the council, whose members often address him as "chairman." This time, he usually was called "Derick" and sometimes "Mr. Berlage." The informality was occasionally tinged with condescension.
"Derick, Derick, that's not the point," council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) said at midday, dismissing Berlage's comment that the county is indebted to Clarksburg residents for exposing the violations. "The point is, you knew there was a problem eight months ago and you did nothing about it," Subin said. Berlage rejects that assertion.
It was an emotional day, arguably the toughest in Berlage's three years as chairman. One of the worst moments came in the early evening, when council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who in 2002 was a leading supporter of Berlage's candidacy for the job, looked down at his longtime friend, who sat at the witness table. Silverman said: "I do not have confidence in the permit review or site inspection processes in place at Park and Planning,"
Minutes later, Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) said that Berlage and Robert C. Hubbard, the director of the county Department of Permitting Services, had "a few months" to restore public confidence in how Montgomery oversees development. Otherwise, he said, the council would have to ask: "Who can we get to do that?"
The man in the middle of this vortex is a sometimes soft-spoken lawyer with a salt-and-pepper Vandyke and a cerebral bent. To unwind after his Tuesday grilling, he poured himself a glass of beer -- just one, he said -- and read part of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina."
In comments to the council and in interviews, Berlage has acknowledged that he will be judged on his cleanup of Clarksburg and said that he is determined to meet the challenge posed by the crisis. "You can bet that development review is an area where I will exercise more hands-on management," he said.
Berlage, 48, grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., and moved to the Washington area after graduating from Princeton University and getting his law degree from New York University.
A Silver Spring resident since 1986, he became politically active in the fight to oppose a shopping center in the Four Corners area -- the land on which Montgomery Blair High School now stands.
He was elected to the council in 1990, at 34, in his first run for office. During his 12 years as a member, he won passage of Montgomery's first forest-conservation law and helped in the revival of downtown Silver Spring. He resigned in June 2002, a half-year before the end of his third term, to avoid the appearance of conflict as his erstwhile colleagues deliberated over whom to select as Planning Board chairman.
A month later, the council unanimously selected Berlage for the full-time position, which pays $129,000 a year. At the time, Silverman called Berlage an "outstanding choice." Silverman now chairs the council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee and vows to begin vigorous oversight of Park and Planning. But he does not say that his lack of confidence in the department's procedures means a lack of confidence in Berlage.
David H. Brown, a North Bethesda resident who filed an ethics complaint in 2002 over Berlage's appointment, now praises the chairman's fairness. "Derick has turned out to be a very credible chairman of the board," Brown said, adding that his complaint was dismissed by the Montgomery County Ethics Commission.
One management issue that Berlage will have to answer for involves department staffing and whether it was adequate for the task of managing the county's rapid growth.
Eight months ago, Rose G. Krasnow, a planner and former Rockville mayor, became chief of the department's development review division, which she said is "seriously understaffed." A single staff member reviews the 300 to 400 building permit applications the department receives each month, she said. Another permit reviewer and other planners are needed to bolster the staff of 11 now available to assess development proposals that the planning board receives.
She said her division also needs to clarify its functions. "What has surprised me is that we don't have a lot of written procedures," she said.
Council members have asked Berlage why he did not petition them for more staff during the budget season this spring, especially because development-review positions are funded through developer fees, not tax dollars. Berlage said that even fee-paid positions must fit spending guidelines set by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "We have to fight for every single position, no matter how it's funded," Berlage said.
"The executive recommended fully funding everything the chairman asked for this year," Duncan spokesman David Weaver said.
The breadth of the problems in Clarksburg, and the extent to which similar regulatory lapses might have occurred in other county projects, will not be known until several investigations are concluded. The Maryland state prosecutor is looking for evidence of criminal activity; the council's auditing agency is reviewing the errors that led to the Clarksburg violations; Silverman is asking the county's inspector general to get involved; and Park and Planning is examining whether violations of site plans have occurred in 270 other developments built in the past two years.
Because Duncan is seeking the governorship, Silverman is running for county executive, Perez is considering a run for attorney general and the other seven council members are up for reelection next year, the political atmosphere is tense, especially because Duncan and several council members are associated with pro-growth policies.
Although Duncan has said he has confidence in Berlage, Clarksburg seems to hang heavily over the county executive, who has led Montgomery for 12 years. "I am as outraged as anyone, if not more outraged, that this happened -- that Park and Planning let this happen," Duncan said last week in a phone interview. "It does a disservice to all of us in county government."
The council is equally agitated, largely because it appoints the Planning Board, subject to confirmation by the county executive, and is the ultimate arbiter of county land use.
Although the problems brought to light by Clarksburg are legitimate, Berlage said: "It is important that I as chairman, and the agency as an institution, be judged on its entire record."