To her critics in Clarksburg, Wynn Witthans is a bureaucrat who allowed developers to skirt the rules and deliver significantly less than what was promised for their 1,300-home community in northern Montgomery County.
To friends and former colleagues, she is a diligent public servant being scapegoated by politicians trying to contain damage to their careers.
What's beyond dispute is that Witthans is the missing star witness today as the Montgomery County Planning Board opens the final phase of its probe of Clarksburg Town Center. At issue are allegations that the developer, San Diego-based Newland Communities, and four local builders violated a series of binding agreements on building heights and setbacks, the style and configuration of homes, and retail and recreation plans.
Witthans, 51, a county planner and landscape architect, managed the Clarksburg project for the Department of Park and Planning for more than seven years. She told the board in April that she altered documents months before to change the height limits for houses so they would match what was in her files. Before resigning in June, citing stress from overwork, she revised her story to say she had made the changes much more recently.
That prompted the board, whose stewardship continues to be questioned by elected officials, to reverse its long-held position that nothing was amiss at Clarksburg. On July 7, the five-member panel unanimously ruled that 433 townhouses and one condominium apartment building are higher than allowed. It also found that 102 homes are closer to the road than permitted.
Witthans, who holds a master's degree in planning from the University of Virginia, has repeatedly declined to comment since a brief interview in June. The matter is under investigation by state and local officials, who are also not talking and who might have nothing to say about the case even after they conclude their probes. The other silent players are the board members themselves, whose recordkeeping is incomplete. The panel says it is barred from speaking because it is now in a quasi-judicial role, assessing claims of wrongdoing.
The board can't compel testimony from Witthans or anyone else who might know about the case because it has no subpoena power. Yet there are key questions that perhaps only Witthans can answer. Were her changes done in good faith to clean up someone else's mistake, or were they to reconcile the public record with what was already on the ground in Clarksburg? What did the five members of the Planning Board know about the changes she made, and when did they know it? Did her supervisors approve the allegedly unauthorized changes?
There are at least two versions of what happened. Newland's attorneys maintain in documents sent to the board that Witthans's handwritten corrections on documents were made so they conformed to already approved plans. The goal, they say, was to correct an imprecise submission from the developer's engineering firm, CPJ of Silver Spring. (Phone messages and e-mails to the firm were not returned Friday or yesterday.)
Other changes, they say, were made by Witthans with authority vested in her by the Planning Board.
Leaders of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, the community group that unearthed irregularities more than a year ago and whose members will be appearing before the board today, say Witthans caved to aggressive treatment from Newland attorneys, aimed at papering over changes of such magnitude that they should have been part of a broader, public review.
Witthans has been unfairly singled out, said Sue Edwards, a Montgomery planner who has known her since 1997. The spotlight, Edwards said, should be on systemic problems at the planning agency. The department, part of a bicounty planning commission that shares some duties with Prince George's County, is a place where some staff members work punishing hours while others take long lunches and attend yoga classes during the day.
"I think she cared very deeply for what she was doing and had a good mastery of it," Edwards said. "She sees solutions, not problems." Edwards and other friends and former colleagues praised Witthans for her negotiating skills and her consistent ability to balance the developers' wishes with community needs.
But, friends and former colleagues say, Witthans was operating in a political atmosphere that was ripe for a controversy.
Montgomery civic activists have long suspected that the building industry was getting special favors for its thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to elected officials. When the Clarksburg story became well-known, activists saw it as a way to criticize County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), the council majority he helped elect and the Planning Board, who they say had been busy for years giving the county away to developers.
Several of Witthans's supporters say it's implausible that she knowingly did anything wrong or that she acted alone, without bringing changes to her bosses for approval. The agency's top civil servant, Planning Director Charles R. Loehr, who says he wasn't directly involved but whose supervision of the project has not been publicly examined by the board, also has resigned and will be leaving by the end of this month before the hearings are done. Another round is set for Nov. 3.
Some suggest Witthans got caught up in a political situation that has broad ramifications for top Montgomery officials: board chairman Derick Berlage, who is seeking a second four-year term for the job that pays $129,000 a year; county council members; and Duncan, a candidate for governor who isn't directly linked to Clarksburg but whose political career has been financed in large part by developers.
With such high stakes, many of Witthans's supporters believe, someone without political clout had to be sacrificed so the politicians could show they had taken charge and could dispose of any problems quickly.
Perry Berman, a senior county planning official who resigned in 1998 after a 30-year career, said he thinks that Witthans is a minor player in the case. The developer's attorneys, he noted, "get paid big bucks to make sure these things don't happen." And the site plans, where the errors occurred, were produced by the engineering firm, CPJ.
"Weren't the engineers responsible for making sure plans were consistent with approvals? No one is talking about [the attorneys] responsible. No one is talking that this property got flipped several times and probably people forgot what got approved," Berman said.
Joe Anderson, who recently retired from the planning department's transportation division, said several current and former planning staffers were talking about Witthans about two months ago during an investment club meeting.
"There was a feeling that whatever Wynn got caught up in, it was not just herself, but the way things were going there, the culture," Anderson said.