The Montgomery County Planning Board fined the developer of a Bethesda luxury townhouse community $6,000 yesterday for construction violations and agreed to allow work to resume on the nearly completed development.
The decision means buyers can complete purchases at Bethesda Crest, on Wisconsin Avenue north of Cedar Lane, where some homes are selling for as much as $2 million. County officials halted work on the project Oct. 26.
The board ruled on a claim that the developer began grading the site -- preparing it for construction -- three months before paperwork was completed. The decision came after a four-hour hearing in which members found themselves in familiar territory: trying to make sense of the Department of Park and Planning's confusing files.
"I am troubled that we have professionals filing documents with our agency where there is a naked inconsistency," said board member John Robinson. "It is somewhere between negligence and a cavalier attitude."
The board also voted 4 to 1 to rebuff a plea from board member Meredith Wellington to fine the developer, Elm Street Development, for setback violations on completed homes. County officials found at least three built too close to the nearby Maplewood neighborhood.
The board instead ordered Elm Street and builder Craftmark to adjust plans for two unbuilt townhouses and a three-car garage. No three-car garages were allowed in the board's original plans, although at least two have been built, said Allen Myers, a community activist who has monitored the development. When completed, the community will consist of 24 luxury townhouses and four moderately priced units.
Wellington said she was "stunned" that the board did not take a tougher stance and asked the staff to continue to look for possible height violations.
A report from the agency's Division of Development Review said that its records of height requirements at Bethesda Crest are murky but that one table showed a maximum of 31.5 feet. John M. Clarke, a vice president of Elm Street, said the company "learned from these inconsistencies" but stressed to the board that the company had no ill intent. Yesterday's hearing was at times reminiscent of sessions on alleged violations at Clarksburg Town Center in northern Montgomery.
As with the Clarksburg case, the board memberstruggled yesterday to decipher the agency's records. They also evaluated staff reports that engineering firm CPJ of Silver Spring submitted site plans that didn't match board specifications. They also expressed concern that their written opinion authorizing the project appeared to contain incorrect information about the size of required setbacks.
"I don't want to see this again," said Robinson, directing his comment to CPJ.
David O'Bryan, senior vice president of CPJ, said in an interview, "We certainly wish that the inconsistencies . . . had been noted at that time."
Although Bethesda Crest was reviewed by other officials, it was assigned to county planner Wynn Witthans, who also headed the Clarksburg development. She resigned in June after acknowledging that she had made handwritten changes to some documents, also submitted by CPJ, so they would conform to others on file.
Wellington said the original hearing on the case "was inadequate, and the staff was careless and negligent in its presentation."
Witthans declined to comment.
The board opinion on Bethesda Crest shows setbacks at 40 feet. But a 2003 transcript of a hearing before board approval shows that members discussed setbacks with Witthans. She said they varied depending on the part of the neighborhood they bordered. A site plan submitted by CPJ and eventually approved by the board showed different data.
Meredith Wellington sought tougher measures.