The investigative arm of the Montgomery County Council will deliver its report on the Clarksburg Town Center controversy Tuesday, and by all accounts it will be a scathing critique of a planning process that has long been a source of county pride.
The Office of Legislative Oversight is expected to cite serious lapses in the county's system for approving and overseeing construction. The report will also de-emphasize the role of Wynn Witthans, the former county planner who managed the Clarksburg project.
Instead, investigators have concluded that she was an overworked bureaucrat in an agency that gave her broad latitude to make unsupervised decisions on how the new residential community in northern Montgomery would be built.
Oversight officials spent last week briefing council members and other county officials on their findings, on condition that they not discuss the report publicly until Tuesday. But several officials agreed to be interviewed as long as they were not identified.
These officials said the report will detail how ambiguous laws, lack of council oversight, bureaucratic barriers between agencies and poor management at the Department of Park and Planning have tainted the development review process. It will also depict a system in which planners and developers work closely, including instances in which portions of board opinions on planning and zoning cases were probably written by attorneys for developers.
"They have a problem much bigger than Clarksburg," one county official who was briefed said. "You have a systemwide failure. . . . The only question I have is: Why didn't it blow up sooner?"
The oversight office is also expected to describe an agency where record-keeping, as one official put it, "is a complete disaster." Some key documents cannot be found; others are missing pages.
Few agencies involved in making land-use decisions are expected to be spared, but the most stinging criticism will be reserved for Park and Planning and the county's Planning Board, which are overseen by the council.
By comparison, the Department of Permitting Services, which reports to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), is depicted as a better-run agency, officials said. Still, until recently, officials said the report notes, that department was issuing building permits without determining whether the developer was fulfilling its obligation to build affordable housing units.
Those briefed on the report's findings said it will note that the planning agency's problems began well before Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage took over in 2002. But several council members said Berlage, who hopes to be reappointed to a second four-year term in June, will have to convince them that he's best suited to implement reforms.
"The problems did not suddenly appear for the first time under the current board's watch," council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) said. He added, however, "The current leadership is accountable for fixing the problems."
Berlage said yesterday that he has implemented changes, including tighter record-keeping, more workers assigned to development review, ethics training and easier public access to documents. He said he has halted the practice of allowing developers' attorneys to draft portions of board opinions.
"I've not seen the [oversight office's] report, but I fully expect it will confirm the existence of a number of deficiencies that we have already found and are in the process of fixing," Berlage said.
Because the council is charged with overseeing Park and Planning and the Planning Board, the report is expected to question how problems went undetected for so long.
Last year, a group of Clarksburg Town Center residents, upset that their promised retail center had yet to materialize, began digging into how the developer was building their sprawling community. The residents uncovered evidence that the developer, Newland Communities, and five builders were constructing homes higher than allowed or too close to the street.
In June, Witthans, who managed the project for the county, resigned after acknowledging that she had altered a site plan so that it conformed with other documents.
Clarksburg residents have continued to present evidence of alleged problems, contending that what is on the ground differs from what was approved initially. The Planning Board, which in July found that Newland and the builders were in violation of height and setback requirements, is holding hearings on other allegations.
Residents say Newland disregarded approved plans and built whatever it wanted. The developer and builders say that the Planning Board gave Witthans the authority to make changes and that the county approved of everything that was built.
According to officials, the report will bolster Newland's version of events, but it will include some criticism of developers.
Officials said they also believe the report will show that investigators have determined that Witthans was largely acting within authority she had been granted when she made "amendments" without public input or board approval. And although some of the changes arguably should have gone before the Planning Board, the agency had few standards on what should and should not be handled at the staff level, officials said.