Montgomery County is investigating whether luxury townhouses in Bethesda have been built higher and closer to the street than specified in plans approved by officials two years ago.
County documents describing the million-dollar homes in Bethesda Crest, a development on Wisconsin Avenue across from the National Naval Medical Center, set their height at 30.5 feet. As construction went forward, however, neighbors began to suspect that the homes were significantly taller.
Their suspicions grew this summer when county officials announced a review of most construction projects approved since Jan. 1, 2003, to determine whether builders complied with approved plans. The review was triggered by the disclosure that hundreds of homes in the northern Montgomery community of Clarksburg were built in violation of height and setback requirements.
This month, after the county announced its review, neighbors received a letter from a representative of Elm Street Development, Bethesda Crest's builder, announcing that the company was submitting a new site plan for "clarification of typographical errors" in a Planning Board document. It did not specify the errors.
The amended plan, filed at the Planning Board on July 15, sets the height of townhouses at 35 feet and, in some instances, 40 feet. Setbacks -- the spaces between a building and the street and between a building and the lot line -- were less than the 40 feet specified in the original documents.
Residents who live near Bethesda Crest contend that it is another example of lax county oversight of construction -- not a few printing errors in a two-year-old document.
"Sounds like Clarksburg to me," said Allan L. Myers, head of the Maplewood Citizens Association, which opposes the development. He is trying to arrange for an independent contractor to measure the homes.
"We think the buildings are too tall, too close to the road and that several trees were cut down that should not have been," Myers said.
John M. Clarke, vice president of Elm Street Development, said that what the company built was consistent with what was approved by the county. He said, however, that not everything discussed with planning staff was eventually written into county documents to describe the development's dimensions. But it is in the site plan, he said.
"We built what was seen by the Planning Board in the site plan, what was voted on by the Planning Board," Clarke said. "This is different from Clarksburg. There the planning staff was allowed to write rules."
Elm Street Development is partly owned by David D. Flanagan, who also is a principal in Craftmark Homes, one of the companies that exceeded height limits in Clarksburg. Flanagan did not return phone calls yesterday.
The county's planning department said it intends to dispatch inspectors in the next few weeks to measure heights and setbacks at the development, which will include 24 townhouses and four moderately priced multifamily homes on a wooded site formerly owned by Goodwill Industries.
Rose Krasnow, head of development review in the county's planning department, said that there is "an inconsistency" at the Goodwill site but that she could not say at this point who is at fault and whether the discrepancies are more than typographical errors. "We are trying to determine just what the Planning Board had approved," she said.
Wynn Witthans, a planning staff member who worked on the Bethesda project, resigned this year after acknowledging that she changed the Clarksburg site plan to conform to what was built by developer Newland Communities. The Planning Board expects to impose penalties next month.
A site plan is a legally binding document that sets dimensions for buildings and setbacks. The original site plan in the Bethesda development shows dimensions but does not include a data table summarizing them, Krasnow said. The Planning Board opinion, the narrative that explains the project, does include such a summary of the dimensions. The two documents differ.
Myers said that more than a year ago, he and other neighbors found that after the Planning Board approved the project in September 2003, at least six changes were made to the original site plan that were not brought to the attention of nearby residents. Depending on how significant the changes were, the planning staff might have been required to provide advance notice to the public.
Myers wrote to John Carter, director of community-based planning, and asked that he explain in writing what the changes were. Carter referred him to Witthans, who was the staff member working on the project.
"She said they were little things," Myers recalled. He never received a written recitation of the changes, he said.