Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) yesterday proposed stripping the Department of Park and Planning of responsibility for enforcing development plans approved by the county, and moving it to another agency.
Duncan said he wants the county's Department of Permitting Services to have full responsibility for enforcing site plans -- legally binding documents that detail height, setback and other features of a construction project. Unlike Park and Planning, which is overseen by the County Council, Permitting Services is under his direct control.
County officials have identified a lack of coordination between the two departments as a central reason for the lapses of oversight in Clarksburg, where a developer and four builders put up hundreds of homes in violation of height and setback requirements. Clarksburg residents brought those lapses to light this summer, and Montgomery's leaders have been promising to rectify what they describe as a broken system.
Duncan is the first county official to formally propose a way to improve that oversight, but County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) said the county executive is moving too fast. "It would be premature in my judgment to say 'this is the answer' when we have not definitively diagnosed the problem," he said.
Perez has said the council will not act on changes until it sees the results of an investigation of the Clarksburg development by the council's Office of Legislative Oversight. That review is expected to be completed early in November. By that time, Perez said, he also hopes to receive "at least a briefing" on the work of the county's inspector general, who also is investigating the matter.
Duncan, who announced his ideas in an interview on WTOP radio yesterday morning, said he doesn't want to wait until the fall and neither should the council.
"They can move forward on this and wait to see what else the [Office of Legislative Oversight] comes up with," he said. "The longer we wait, the more risk there is that something else will happen," he added, referring to the possibility of other projects being built in violation of site plans or county regulations.
Duncan is running an undeclared campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, which may give him reason to act aggressively to repair the county's system for overseeing site plan developments. During his radio interview, he called the Clarksburg lapses "outrageous" and said the county needs to follow short-term fixes with long-term remedies.
"The system clearly is broken. We're fixing it," he said.
Both the county and the Department of Park and Planning have instituted administrative changes to ensure that developments are built according to regulation. Perez referred to these steps as "cauterizing the wound."
Duncan proposes creating a staff of 23 inspectors and other officials, which would include the transfer of four positions from Park and Planning, to enforce site plans approved by Montgomery's Planning Board. The extra personnel are necessary, Duncan said, to carry out inspections that should be done now but aren't and to enforce new requirements that would be imposed on developers as part of the changes.
For example, the county would require a site plan inspection before issuing a building permit and carry out monthly inspections of projects under construction. Duncan's reforms would add a half-dozen new kinds of inspections or permits to the process of building a development in the county.
Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage called the new steps a "belt and suspenders" approach but said he supports what Duncan is proposing. "This is the same concept I've been advocating for some time," he said.
He said Duncan is proposing a "significant increase" in county personnel. "The precise numbers [of additional staff] is one of the things I felt we still needed to look at carefully," said Berlage, referring to recent discussions with county officials over the details of the proposal.
Berlage said he had expected Duncan to unveil the proposal later this week, after further internal review.
"We were in the process of resolving all the final details, and I guess Mr. Duncan decided to announce it today," Berlage said.