The Montgomery County Planning Board has revamped plans to investigate possible violations at Clarksburg Town Center, postponing a hearing on penalties and giving the developer more time to respond to residents' claims.
The move, announced yesterday but approved by the board earlier this week, came several days after residents, County Council members and developer Newland Communities voiced concerns about the panel's handling of the case.
The decision marks at least the third time the board has changed the hearing schedule on possible sanctions against the San Diego-based development company, which could face penalties exceeding $1 million. No date has been set for a penalty hearing, but it is expected to be held before the end of the year.
The board also took the unprecedented step of dropping the usual staff analysis it receives in advance of hearings. Such reports offer a staff view of alleged violations and make recommendations concerning guilt or innocence.
Board spokeswoman Nancy Lineman said the panel had decided to defer the staff report so that it would hear the case "without any prejudgment."
While postponing the penalty hearing, the board has extended a hearing to gather information in the case. Newland has been given its own hearing date, Nov. 3, instead of having to share time with residents, the usual practice, at a previously scheduled session Oct. 25.
The procedural changes were vetted by the Planning Board staff in a series of phone calls with representatives of residents, the developer and the project's four builders. The board was told of the proposed changes in telephone calls with the staff this week. Development review chief Rose Krasnow said that the decision was the staff's to make and that "no one has objected."
"We haven't had a case like this before," she said.
Amy Presley, a leader of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, which more than a year ago began to unearth evidence of height and setback violations, said she and other activists were unhappy that the developer has been given extra time to respond to their claims.
"It's not due process," she said. "But we will go ahead anyway. . . The allegations are clear."
Douglas C. Delano, a Newland vice president, said that the board's new plans are "an improvement" but that he still has reservations. He also noted concerns voiced by many that the board is reviewing questions about the conduct of its own staff.
"That puts a big question mark on this," Delano said. "It has become a process issue. It is no longer a land-use issue."
This past summer, the planner assigned to the Clarksburg project, Wynn Witthans, resigned after she acknowledged altering height specifications on a site plan to reconcile them with what had been built, officials said. Witthans has not been called to testify.
Her boss, Park and Planning Department Director Charles R. Loehr, announced that he will retire by the end of this month. The state prosecutor is investigating, as is the county.
Lineman said the board made the changes "to try to come up with a more accessible way for both sides to present their positions."
At an Oct. 6 hearing, Newland attorney Stephen Z. Kaufman complained that the community group was making new allegations that he was not prepared to counter.
The county continues to face questions about its ability to manage rapid growth. On July 7, the Planning Board, which said for months that there were no problems in Clarksburg, ruled that 433 townhouses and a condominium apartment building are higher than allowed. It also found that 102 homes were closer to the road than permitted.