The builders, developers and community leaders embroiled in the Clarksburg Town Center controversy said yesterday that they have agreed to take their quarrels out of public view and into closed-door mediation.
The abrupt announcement came on the eve of a scheduled Montgomery County Planning Board hearing into allegations that the 1,300-home community near Germantown is being developed far differently from the grand vision sold to residents and in violation of county rules.
At the hearing, which has been canceled, more than a dozen people were to talk about planning documents that some Clarksburg residents claim were produced to validate construction changes made without proper approval.
By agreeing to mediation, the parties also delayed Planning Board action on a recommendation by its staff to fine the five builders and the developer, Newland Communities, up to $2.11 million.
Planning Board members approved a two-month break in the proceedings to begin mediation, with costs divided among the developer, the builders and the county.
The Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, the residents group that uncovered the building irregularities, will pay for a land-use planner to advise it during mediation.
Yesterday's announcement came after several weeks of private discussions among elected leaders and those involved in the Clarksburg dispute about the possibility of shifting to mediation. The Planning Board's procedures had left some officials uncomfortable because the five-member panel often was put in the position of investigating itself and its staff in recent months.
Last month, the County Council's investigative arm issued a report critical of the planning agency for sloppy record-keeping and confusing practices.
"I think everyone recognizes it is time to move forward," said Rose Krasnow, chief of development review at the planning agency.
County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), a former federal prosecutor who helped broker the mediation deal, said, "This case simply jumps out at me as a classic example of a case that should settle."
The decision to mediate does not appear to have an impact on ongoing probes by the state special prosecutor, who handles criminal matters, and the county's independent inspector general. They are examining the documents that have been challenged by residents to see whether any laws were broken.
At a Nov. 3 hearing, Newland Communities produced memorandums and other documents that they said showed the county's planning department had approved a series of changes in the original plans, now seven years old. A planning agency report, issued late Friday, disagreed and said many changes to street and lot layouts, green space, recreation areas and unbuilt retail were improperly authorized.
The five builders are Bozzuto, Craftstar, NV Homes, Miller and Smith, and Porten.
Douglas C. Delano, a Newland vice president, said the company was pleased to move to mediation. "The objective here is to get over rehashing what happened in the past and come up with a good plan for Clarksburg Town Center," he said. "We hope to make it even better than originally planned."
Amy Presley, a leader of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, said she, too, was comfortable with the idea of mediation. But if a consensus was reached, she said, it would still need to be presented to the public and the Planning Board for final approval.
"I don't think anything will be hidden," she said. "I would be disturbed if people were viewing this as some closed-door settlement. We will do as we always have done and give the community updates."