Montgomery County planning officials have recommended $2.11 million in fines for the developer and builders of Clarksburg Town Center, saying they failed to build what was promised in official plans for the residential community near Germantown.
But the staff of the county's Department of Park and Planning also urged the Montgomery Planning Board to delay the fines, and perhaps drop them altogether, if the companies resolve disputes over unbuilt shops and missing open space, parking and other amenities for the community, originally envisioned with about 1,300 homes.
A 28-page staff report, issued late Friday in the middle of a long holiday weekend, placed much responsibility on the planning agency itself for some of the missteps. The report says some agency officials, whom it does not name, appear to have authorized sweeping changes in building plans but lacked authority to do so.
The planning agency, which is governed by the Planning Board, rarely recommends fines. But it nevertheless held the companies accountable for numerous violations. The proposed fines are: $140,000 for developer Newland Communities of San Diego, for filing lot layouts with the county that did not match approved plans; $40,000 for Bozzuto Homes of Greenbelt, for beginning construction without final county approvals and before a public hearing on proposed changes; and $1.93 million for other builders, who were not named, for seeking building permits before site plans were signed by county officials. The other companies constructing homes at the site are Craftstar, NV Homes, Porten, and Miller and Smith.
County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who represents Clarksburg, said yesterday that the staff report was somewhat puzzling.
"You have the fines, but then they are saying delay action. . . . I am not sure how those pieces work together. How do you levy fines in some cases but not others?" he said.
The report was prepared for a Planning Board hearing set for 1 p.m. Thursday. It will be the panel's sixth session on allegations that Newland and the builders made unauthorized changes to the small town-center development. On July 7, the board ruled that 433 townhouses and a condominium building were too tall and that 102 houses violated setback requirements.
The disputes have sparked a broad debate about Montgomery's ability to oversee its rapid growth.
Tom Bozzuto, chief executive of Bozzuto Homes, said his company was following standard practice in Montgomery when it sought permits without an approved site plan. "That has been the procedure in Montgomery County forever. . . . You would probably have to shut down half the construction in the county for that violation," he said.
Douglas C. Delano, a Newland vice president, said the company felt partially vindicated by the report. "There wasn't any ill intent or bad faith on the part of anybody. It also confirmed the developer received staff approvals and did not go off on their own and do what they wanted," he said.
Rose Krasnow, the agency's chief of development review, who began working there a year ago as the controversy heated up, said she believed staff members had operated in "good faith" and might have thought they had been given broad authority to make substantial changes without board approval. Attorneys for Newland and the builders say that is why they built according to plans that differed from those approved by the board in 1998.
Last year, a group of residents, the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, began to press the agency to investigate after discovering that plans for the community's retail elements were shifting from a walkable town center to strip shopping. The group soon found evidence of construction violations. After months of trying to get officials to pay attention, they had their claims reviewed by the board over several months this year.
The report does not offer specifics about how changes were approved or by whom. It cites only one builder, Bozzuto, and developer Newland by name and does not single out any staff members.
At least two key officials who might be able to answer questions about procedures no longer work at the agency: Wynn Witthans, the planner who managed the project, and Charles Loehr, the staff director and Witthans's boss. Loehr retired in October after disclaiming responsibility for problems at the development, though he acknowledged some missteps on his watch. Witthans could not be reached for comment.
Krasnow said yesterday that the agency hopes to get the companies and the community to sit down, possibly before the hearing, "so that the community can return to the way it was envisioned. . . . We don't think there is a whole lot to gain from minutely scrutinizing every discrepancy."
Amy Presley, a leader of the residents' group, said the planning officials were "falling on their sword." But she said she was pleased that the report echoes her group's long-held position that staff members overstepped their authority when approving some changes.
She said she is still concerned about some issues not addressed in the report, such as a site plan presented by Newland at a Nov. 3 hearing that was used to illustrate changes approved by the board. The plan does not appear to exist anywhere, except in the files of CPJ of Silver Spring, the developer's engineer. Krasnow said she is examining the issue.
A report from the County Council's investigative arm this month cited poor recordkeeping and missing documents at the planning agency.