A Montgomery County planner sought to have a Silver Spring property rezoned so he could build townhouses on the site, according to officials and documents.
On June 22, county officials ordered Lawrence Cole, a planning coordinator in the transportation division of the Montgomery Department of Park and Planning, to abandon the venture or resign. Department policy bars employees from holding a second job that requires interaction with the agency unless a supervisor approves.
"He felt it was not a conflict. I felt it clearly was," department Director Charles Loehr said.
In an e-mail, Cole declined to answer questions about whether his venture was ethical, calling them "irrelevant" because he now plans to sell the property in the Woodside neighborhood. He remains employed by the department.
The Woodside issue arose after Cole and a business partner bought a single-family house in the neighborhood in December.
Cole later spoke with other planning staff members about how to obtain approval from the county Planning Board to subdivide the half-acre lot and build two duplexes, according to documents. Board approval was necessary because the lot was zoned for single-family homes. Because the property borders a historic zone, Cole also consulted with the staff of the Historic Preservation Commission, which had to review the proposal before it went to the Planning Board.
Susan Stamm, past president of Woodside Civic Association, said she learned of Cole's plans in May, when he phoned her from his office.
"He said he was the owner of the property and had a plan to develop it, and he wanted to put townhouses on it," Stamm recalls. "I said, 'You are kidding, right?' "
Stamm and other residents opposed the project, calling townhouses inappropriate in a neighborhood of Civil War-era homes.
Meanwhile, the preservation commission staff prepared a generally favorable review of Cole's proposal. According to a transcript of a preliminary hearing June 22, Cole said he had been working with officials for months on ways to get the project approved, even though residents had not been notified.
That day, Loehr ordered Cole to drop the project or resign.
As part of his ultimatum, Loehr gave Cole several weeks to decide whether he wanted to keep his job or pursue his development project. In mid-July, Cole chose his job.
Loehr said Cole did not attempt to hide what he was doing. "It was not like he was trying to do this under the cover of darkness," he said.
Cole's project comes on the heels of another controversy over the county's planning and zoning process. A county planner resigned in June after it was discovered that she improperly altered documents for the Clarksburg Town Center in northern Montgomery, where several hundred homes were built in violation of height and setback requirements. Multiple state and local agencies, including the state prosecutor and county inspector general's offices, are investigating.
Community leaders said the Cole case is an example of how county policies and procedures are stacked against the average resident.
"In a process that is complicated and nearly incomprehensible, those with inside knowledge of that process and relationships with Park and Planning staff have an unfair advantage," said Lisa Bontempo, president of Woodside Civic Association.
Even if Cole had chosen to resign, Bontempo said, it would have been inappropriate for him to move ahead with his plans.