Over the past few weeks, the controversy surrounding construction violations at Clarksburg Town Center and the lack of official oversight have tarnished the county's highly regarded planning system.
The situation has fueled some residents' mistrust and threatens to become an underlying theme in a host of development-related issues, ranging from the implementation of community master plans to officials' desire to build more affordable housing.
On July 18, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage imposed a partial freeze on the issuing of building permits, which is now in the process of being lifted.
The County Council also rejected emergency legislation that would have imposed a separate, temporary slowdown on issuing building permits in certain areas. The measure was sponsored by members Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty).
That measure, which Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) and Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) also supported, needed the backing of six of the nine council members. But even though six members supported the measure, Floreen and Knapp missed the vote because they were on an official trip, meaning it fell two votes shy of passing.
Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and members George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) voted against the measure.
In a bit of not-so-subtle irony, four of the bill's supporters -- Floreen, Silverman, Subin and Knapp -- were elected in 2002 on Duncan's End Gridlock slate. The slate was heavily financed by the development and business communities, both of which strongly opposed the legislation.
The official votes, however, are only part of the story, especially considering the council's fall agenda, which will be dominated by growth issues. Here's a summary of how Duncan and each council member reacted to the controversy, and the potential impact the issue could have on this fall's legislative agenda and the 2006 elections.
Douglas M. Duncan
For the most, part, Duncan has been quiet on the matter. His public comments have been limited; his staff is quick to point out the council oversees the Planning Board.
Duncan did go on WTOP radio early last month in an attempt to take credit for the exposing of some of the building violations at Clarksburg Town Center.
He told listeners that the Department of Permitting Services, which reports to him, helped identify the Clarksburg houses that were built too tall. But the Clarksburg residents who uncovered the violations say they wrote to Duncan last fall and urged him to investigate the matter. They say Duncan responded with a form letter thanking them for their interest.
The Clarksburg ordeal could cast a cloud over Duncan's record on development issues. As a candidate for governor, he relies heavily on contributions from developers and the building industry.
Duncan issued the temporary freeze via press release while attending a conference in Hawaii. The timing of his announcement -- about an hour after the council proposed a temporary building slowdown -- made it appear that Duncan was trying to one-up the council. Either way, builders, developers and even civic activists ridiculed the freeze and described it as an overreaction.
The question now for Duncan is whether the controversy will make it harder for him to sell Montgomery as a model of good management, especially if the issue lingers into late fall.
Steven A. Silverman
As a candidate for county executive, Silverman has the most to lose if voters decide to use the Clarksburg matter to punish elected officials who are perceived -- rightly or wrongly -- as being too closely linked to developers and their political contributions.
The situation for Silverman is all the more challenging because he will have to cast tough votes on development-related issues over the next year, which is something his opponent for the Democratic nomination -- former council member Isiah Leggett -- doesn't have to do.
Even before the Clarksburg story became public, Leggett was preparing to make Silverman's campaign contributions from the development industry an issue in the race.
Silverman, in turn, appeared to be ready to take that hit, so long as he had more than $1 million to barrage voters with a sophisticated media campaign to dilute Leggett's charges.
Silverman, who is chairman of the council committee that oversees land-use policies, said he didn't know about the potential problems with Clarksburg Town Center until they hit the media. Since then, he's been leading the charge for immediate reforms.
He has sent several tersely worded letters to Berlage all but dictating how the Planning Board should handle certain aspects of the Clarksburg case. And when Silverman learned that there might be similar problems in other subdivisions, he fired off letters to Berlage -- and the media -- making it clear he wanted a thorough investigation.
When the council bill was introduced July 18, Silverman initially was skeptical of it because he worried that it would hamper efforts to build affordable housing and inconvenience home buyers and contractors.
By the following week, when it was time for the council to vote, Silverman was one of the bill's strongest supporters.
As council president, Perez has tried to lead the council's response to the discovery of flaws in the planning system, asking the Office of Legislative Oversight to investigate. He has also stayed in close contact with Clarksburg residents.
Because of an ongoing political dispute over legislation on predatory lending, Perez shut Silverman out of those discussions, even though Silverman chairs the council committee overseeing land-use matters.
Perez, whom Duncan did not support in the Democratic primary before Perez's election in 2002, was amused that most members of the county executive's End Gridlock slate lined up in support of Subin's bill for a slowdown in issuing building permits. He said he's "never seen more irony."
Perez's approach may be costing him friends. Subin has accused Perez of trying to micromanage the council's response while shutting out other members.
But because Knapp and Floreen were away, Perez was able to team with Andrews, both opponents of the planned intercounty connector and generally less receptive to growth than their colleagues, to kill the council bill.
Perez said he didn't think the bill was necessary and he worried it would hinder day laborers' ability to find work.
Because his district includes Clarksburg, Knapp may have one eye on solving the planning problems and the other on his 2006 reelection prospects.
Knapp could face a strong opponent in the Democratic primary. The district also has many Independents and Republicans, meaning he could also face a strong GOP challenger in the general election. And with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) expected to campaign hard in northern Montgomery next year, Knapp could face an organized GOP get-out-the-vote campaign.
It could be hard, however, for an opponent to exploit Knapp's response to Clarksburg growth issues.
Long before the building violations were uncovered, Knapp was trying to get Duncan and his colleagues to pay more attention to Clarksburg, especially to the need for road improvements and a new fire station.
But his political future could rest on a simple cliche: What did he know and when did he know it?
Knapp apparently was alerted to possible height violations at Clarksburg Town Center in the fall. In December, he asked Berlage to look into the allegations. Berlage responded that everything was fine. Knapp apparently took him at his word.
The rest of the story remains murky.
Knapp held numerous meetings with community leaders and builders in the days after the issue became public. But then he went on a previously planned official trip to Israel and missed the vote on his own bill. He did leave a series of pointed questions for Berlage to answer at the council hearing on the legislation.
As a longtime skeptic of the Duncan administration and the council majority's attitudes toward development and the intercounty connector, Praisner is pushing for an exhaustive review of the county's planning policies.
Unlike some of her colleagues, she has been insistent that an outside investigator be used to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. She also is eager to delve into other allegations surrounding Clarksburg Town Center, most notably residents' allegations of shoddy construction of moderately priced residences.
Surprisingly, Andrews has had little to say about the Clarksburg issue in recent weeks.
Because the former executive director of Common Cause Maryland doesn't accept campaign contributions from developers, Andrews feels insulated from any potential political fallout.
His silence, however, won't last long. He is saving his arguments for the fall, when he will use the Clarksburg matter to help him push for a more restrained growth policy.
George L. Leventhal
Leventhal hasn't had much to say, either.
He was a member of Duncan's End Gridlock slate, but he's been on a constant mission to diversify his voting record, apparently so that he can claim the middle ground in the next election.
In 2003, he was the only member of End Gridlock to vote against eliminating "policy area review." The policy used formulas to determine whether certain communities had too much traffic to sustain new housing.
Leventhal also broke from his End Gridlock team by voting against the council bill.
As a former member of the Planning Board, Floreen perhaps is best suited to fully understand the system and what went wrong in Clarksburg.
The plight of Clarksburg residents who uncovered the violations may also seem like deja vu for Floreen. She got her start in politics by successfully fighting a Silver Spring building that was constructed too high. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in 1986 that the top floor of the building had to be taken off.
Floreen, who is generally respected by both the business and civic communities, could use her background to put together a long-term solution to the controversy if such legislation is needed.
Howard A. Denis
Denis's district may be miles from Clarksburg, but official oversight of construction and development resonate loudly in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, where many residents are frustrated with the government's approach to "mansionization" and in-fill developments.
Denis, who has a mixed voting record on growth-related issues, voted for the council bill. But even though Denis has been out front on attempts to curb mansionization, he can expect a well-organized Democratic challenge next year in a district where Republicans are badly outnumbered.
Michael L. Subin
Subin drafted the council bill that was ultimately defeated, and his rush to have it drafted may have led to its demise.
Because it included the word "moratorium," the building industry quickly marshaled opposition to it.
For a host of interested parties -- including home buyers, contractors, builders, Realtors and affordable-housing advocates -- there was no word more threatening than "moratorium."
Subin later acknowledged that it was "a mistake" to include the word in the bill. Some civic activists have argued that the rushed effort symbolizes some elected officials scrambling for political cover.