Residents of The Brownstones, a new townhouse development in Wheaton, were eager to be pioneers in the long-planned revival of the community. Their half-million-dollar homes were just steps from the Metro and the bustle of Georgia Avenue.
But as they unpacked, some made a surprising discovery: Many of the two-car garages of the 75 townhouses, promised in sales materials and described in documents filed with the county by builder EYA, were a very tight squeeze. Two cars will fit, but only if the drivers don't mind getting in and out of their vehicles through doors that barely open. Forget about trying to unload groceries or strapping a child into a car seat.
"When we pulled into the garage, we immediately realized we had a problem," said Diane Gubernot, a government scientist who with her partner, Linda Amendt, paid more than $600,000 for a four-story townhouse on Cobble Hill Terrace.
As Amendt, Gubernot and several of their neighbors found, just because a builder and the county say it's a two-car garage doesn't make it so. And Montgomery County's zoning code for Wheaton, aimed at discouraging cars, allows 17-foot-wide garages.
Which, they are, give or take an inch. But that isn't wide enough for many residents, who have told county officials that the garages are too small for two cars.
"It's really a 11/2-car garage," said Byron Derringer, president of the homeowners association. The builder's covenants for the homeowners association also require that homeowners keep trash and recycling cans indoors except on collection day, further crowding the garages.
County officials say that EYA met all the legal requirements for the townhouses it built. And that, some residents believe, is the problem: allowing a builder to present a 17-foot-wide garage as suitable for two cars.
They say the garages are an example of the complexities buyers encounter as they navigate the maze of regulations for new-home construction in rapidly developing Montgomery. After weeks of trying to obtain information from county officials and interpret multiple documents and site plans, residents of The Brownstones are still seeking to understand what they actually bought.
The issues in Wheaton involve two county agencies already under scrutiny for their roles in another troubled residential development: the Department of Permitting Services, which reports to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), and the county's Department of Planning, a quasi-independent agency that answers to the County Council.
This year, a group of Clarksburg residents found that new homes in its Northern Montgomery development were built higher and closer to the street than plans showed. A Department of Planning employee, Wynn Witthans, who has since resigned, acknowledged that she altered planning documents to reflect what the developer, Newland Communities, built.
The Brownstones are on land where the zoning code makes the Department of Permitting Services responsible for oversight. To obtain building permits, EYA, formerly Eakin/Youngentob, was required to supply architectural and other site plans to DPS.
When homeowners examined DPS files, they found that permitting and sales documents promised a garage width of 17 feet 1 inch.
Amendt, Gubernot and several neighbors took measurements, which showed that the usable width in many of the garages is about 16 feet 11 inches because of a two-inch-wide PVC pipe that runs along a wall in many of the garages. Yet even if the usable space in the garage had been 17 feet 1 inch, parking their Subaru Outback and BMW coupe inside is practically impossible for Amendt and Gubernot. With the doors open, the vehicles have a combined wingspan of almost 20 feet, the width DPS informally recommends to builders for two-car garages.
The company's sales literature refers to "two-car garages" and shows them at 17 feet 1 inch, which they are, wall to wall. Letters to the Department of Planning written by the builder's attorney refer to "two-car garages."
DPS Director Robert C. Hubbard said that although the garages might be problematic, they do not violate county regulations. "It may not be the most usable space," he acknowledged.
Robert D. Youngentob, president of EYA, said he finds the Wheaton residents' concerns troubling.
"We build hundreds of these types of units around the D.C area. I can count on my left hand the number of complaints we have had about parking and maneuverability," he said. "There are a number of people who believe the trade-offs of higher density and more urban design justify the slight inconvenience of difficulty in maneuvering to have a location so close to Metro," he said.
"We are very concerned about our reputation and believe strongly that in this case we have done absolutely nothing wrong."
The residents unearthed another area of concern as they examined architectural plans and other documents: The usable space in the alley behind their homes is narrower than that shown on builder plans. According to documents, the alley is 26 feet wide -- which it is. But Gubernot measured the navigable width as 19 feet 9 inches, because concrete bumps between each house jut into the alley. That tightens the turning radius.
"The maneuvering is difficult," acknowledged Hubbard, who examined documents on file in his agency in response to a request from The Washington Post.
"It's like being in any strip mall today," he said.
Amendt, Gubernot, Derringer and others in the neighborhood say their goal is simple: They would like the county's help in finding alternative parking.
But as the residents boned up on the county's parking regulations, they realized they were still in a bind.
On nearby Amherst Avenue, the county recently reinstalled two-hour parking meters. On the opposite side of Amherst, residential parking permits are needed.
Residents of The Brownstones don't qualify because they are on the wrong side of Amherst, Derringer said.
On Friday, the residents received a letter from Duncan, encouraging them to consider paying for parking spaces in a nearby county-owned garage.
As for Gubernot, she's contemplating giving up a car.
"You should know," she said last week, "I went out and bought a moped."
It fits in the garage.