The developers of Clarksburg Town Center disregarded the law and steamrolled over a county planning department that failed to understand or enforce its own rules, a group of residents told the Montgomery County Planning Board yesterday.
In a detailed six-hour presentation, the residents presented a case that developers and builders said one thing to get the project approved in 1999, then turned around and built whatever they wanted.
The developers -- originally Texas-based Terrabrook, later bought by Newland Communities of San Diego -- then muscled the planning staff into approving the changes, often after construction had begun, residents said.
"There is a pattern where the developer exploits the system, obfuscates information and confuses the staff," said Amy Presley, a leader of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, which has uncovered evidence of alleged building violations in the northern Montgomery County community.
Presley made her comments during the latest in a series of hearings on allegations that Newland and four local builders violated a series of binding agreements on building heights and setbacks, the style and configuration of homes and retail and recreational plans.
The number of houses on each block were often increased while affordable units, recreational amenities and streets were added, removed or repositioned at will, Presley said.
The case, which has raised broad questions about the county's ability to manage growth, has caused upheaval in the planning department, including the resignation of a senior planner who managed the Clarksburg project.
Yesterday's proceedings were devoted solely to residents' complaints. Newland will have six hours to present its defense Nov. 3.
Attorneys for Newland have argued that almost everything the company built in Clarksburg was approved by county planners.
In 1999, the board gave the staff authority to make "minor" changes to approved plans. Numerous documents indicate that at least one staffer, Wynn Witthans, who resigned in June, agreed to most of the changes Newland made to original site plans.
"The residents are engaging in creative, revisionary hindsight," Stephen Z. Kaufman, one of Newland's attorneys, said in an interview.
Residents and their attorneys argued that Newland and some of the builders -- who could be fined at least $1 million at the conclusion of the hearings -- had abused the authority to seek the minor amendments.
According to the county zoning code, a minor amendment cannot alter the planning board's intent, Presley said.
"There are things Wynn Witthans authorized to be done that are no more lawful than asking someone to rob a bank," said David W. Brown, an attorney for the residents.
Brown and Presley cautioned, however, that Witthans shouldn't be blamed. Instead, they said the developers purposely muddied information to confuse her into approving changes that should have been taken before the board.
Presley said that within months of gaining Planning Board approval for Clarksburg Town Center, the developer had produced its own "development plan" for the project. The community was built largely off that plan, instead of the legally binding one, Presley said.
Later, often after home buyers put in contracts on the new houses, the company went back and sought amendments to bring it into conformity with what was being built, according to Presley and documents.