The former Montgomery County planner who oversaw construction of Clarksburg Town Center met with a builder in December to discuss ways of dampening community opposition to the height of the houses, according to documents released yesterday by the county.
The documents show that Clarksburg residents spent months in 2004 trying to convince county officials that the new homes contained widespread height and setback violations, only to be told that nothing was wrong.
At the same time, according to the documents, the planner and one of the companies building homes in Clarksburg held a meeting at which height issues were discussed.
In a Dec. 10 e-mail, a representative of Bozzuto Homes Inc. thanked Wynn Witthans, a planner for the Department of Park and Planning, for a meeting both had attended that morning.
"We feel that after the meeting everyone is in agreement with a plan on how to mitigate any further opposition to our existing condominium buildings," wrote Jackie Mowrey, a development associate for Bozzuto. "Hopefully we can make the residents feel comfortable with the height."
Clarksburg residents and civic activists have long contended that the county's planning process is an insider game controlled by developers who enjoy easy access to planners.
The e-mail from Bozzuto to Witthans heightens those concerns, some residents said.
"It is indicative of the developer-favored climate that has been fostered and continues," said Amy Presley, a member of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee.
The Dec. 10 e-mail was written four months before the county Planning Board took up the concerns of Clarksburg residents. At that April meeting, the board ruled there were no height violations, in part because Witthans altered the site plan -- a legally binding document describing the size of what is to be built -- to reflect what had actually been constructed.
But in July, the board reversed the ruling, saying that the developer of Clarksburg Town Center, Newland Communities, and four builders -- Craftstar Homes Inc., NVR Inc., Miller & Smith and Bozzuto Homes -- erected 433 townhouses that exceeded the 35-foot limit established in the original site plan and one condominium taller than the 45 feet approved by the county. The board also found that about 100 new townhouses were too close to the street.
The county inspector general, the county's Office of Legislative Oversight and the Maryland special prosecutor are investigating park and planning's role in the matter.
The agency released hundreds of pages of documents yesterday in response to a request by The Washington Post under the Maryland Public Information Act. But officials refused to turn over drafts of documents, those deemed "confidential" or those that involved discussions between staff and attorneys.
Witthans, who resigned in June, declined to comment yesterday. Representatives of Bozzuto Homes did not return several calls for comment. Derick Berlage, the chairman of the Planning Board, would not comment specifically on the Bozzuto e-mail but said planners often meet with developers and residents.
Rose Krasnow, park and planning's director of development review, said that she is not familiar with the e-mail, but that she and Witthans met with both builders and Clarksburg residents in December to discuss building heights.
According to the documents, Clarksburg residents were rebuffed in September 2004 when they told the county they suspected that buildings were too tall.
One of the residents, Kimberly Shiley, wrote to Witthans on Sept. 27 to confirm a telephone conversation they'd had earlier that day.
"I understand that you will not be following up further through your office relative to project building verification. You would like us to contact the developer (Newland) directly," Shiley wrote.
Clarksburg residents, according to e-mails, continued pressing their case.
In December, Krasnow agreed to investigate. She explained in a Dec. 14 letter why she thought there were no height violations, citing earlier plans allowing buildings of up to four stories.
The advisory committee protested to Berlage, saying the planning staff "has been grossly negligent" and had "fallen abysmally short on serving the citizens."
The group requested a formal planning board hearing, which was initially scheduled for March but later pushed back to April.
At the hearing the board ruled there were no violations because, according to Berlage, Witthans crossed out "35 feet" on the site plan and replaced it with "four stories."
There is also evidence that in March, prior to the hearing, Witthans and Craftstar Homes discussed setback concerns.
"Per your request, here is the letter drafted by Craftstar on behalf of our homebuyers with the offset issue at Clarksburg Town Center," Kenneth J. Mergner, general manager of construction, wrote to Witthans.
"We truly thank you for your support and compassion as it relates to this unfortunate situation," Mergner said.