Montgomery County planning officials yesterday ordered a halt to construction on luxury townhouses in Bethesda, saying some homes in the 28-unit Bethesda Crest development are too close to a road and a church.
The stop work order, delivered to the site north of Cedar Lane late yesterday by a county inspector, means that buyers will be unable to close on their homes and move in for at least a few more weeks. The county Planning Board will review the staff's findings at a hearing tentatively scheduled for Nov. 10.
Problems at Bethesda Crest were brought to the Department of Park and Planning's attention more than a year ago by neighbors and members of the Maplewood Citizens Association, but residents said they were generally ignored. In July, however, after the Planning Board found hundreds of violations at Clarksburg Town Center, officials began auditing other projects, including Bethesda Crest, where some townhouses are priced at more than $2 million.
Neighbors, many of whom opposed the development from the beginning, complained that many townhouses are too tall, that completion of the four moderately priced units required as part of the agreement with the county is substantially behind schedule, that some trees were improperly removed, and that many of the 16 homes already finished are not properly set back from the street and from other neighbors.
The stop work order addresses only the setbacks, based on data from the county's Department of Permitting Services. In measuring, the agency found setback violations of a few feet but no height violations. The planning department is contracting with an outside company to review those findings before the hearing.
Rose Krasnow, head of development review at the Department of Park and Planning, said the developer, Elm Street Development of McLean, had hoped to amend the plans to reflect what had been built.
"They wanted to change the documents in a way that greatly benefited them but ignored what they had promised," she said.
John M. Clarke, vice president of Elm Street, said the company did not understand the planning staff's findings.
"It is not clear to us what are the specifics. There is conflicting information: The picture shows one thing, the data table shows something else. The information is not all consistent on setbacks or building height," he said.
He said he and his colleagues are "disappointed we have gone the route of a stop work order. We tried to get the issues on the table so that customers would not be impacted," he said.
In July, as neighbors pressed the Planning Board to assess their allegations, CPJ of Silver Spring, the engineering firm employed by Elm Street, asked the board for permission to revise the Bethesda Crest site plan for "clarification of typographical errors."
The "typographical errors" were not detailed in CPJ's letter. The company, widely used by many builders in the area, also submitted imprecise site plans now at the center of the Clarksburg case.
The original site plan for Bethesda Crest set the height of the market-rate homes at 301/2 feet.
The new proposed plan, filed by CPJ on July 15, sets the height of townhouses at 35 feet and, in some instances, 40 feet. Setbacks -- the spaces between a building and the street and between a building and the lot line -- were less than the 40 feet specified in the original documents.
Alan Myers, who lives near Bethesda Crest, said he believes the buildings are taller than promised. Although he is concerned about setbacks, he said, houses that are "eight feet higher than promised have a bigger impact on the neighborhood."