Not quite what they planned

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLARKSBURG - When he first moved into his new townhouse a few years ago, Tim DeArros says, he enjoyed watching from his bedroom window as the sun set behind the rounded summit of Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance.

But now, he says, the sun dips behind the rooftops of neighboring homes, which have risen to block his view of the familiar landmark that anchors the gently rolling farmland and forests to the north and west.

"We became hemmed in by construction," says DeArros, 42, who works out of his home as an operations manager for NCR Corp.

As the last major development to be built in Montgomery County, Clarksburg was supposed to be a model "new town," a shining example of smart growth in Washington's suburbs, with a cozy, neotraditional design that included porches and alleys, pocket parks and a pedestrian-friendly retail center of shops and cafes.

But DeArros and other residents who say they bought into Clarksburg Town Center on that promise of a well-planned 1,300-home community are fuming now.

Their complaints include delays in promised amenities such as jogging trails and a swimming pool, miscues that turned a planned leafy mews into a street, and revisions in the proposed retail district to feature a sprawling supermarket, rather than the village-like downtown they contend they were sold on.

The final straw for some frustrated homeowners, though, was their discovery that hundreds of newer townhouses and condominiums in the 268-acre development exceeded height and setback limits - and that a planner altered documents in an apparent attempt to cover up the violations.

The condos that initially ruined DeArros's sunset view, for instance, are 12 feet higher than the 45-foot limit called for in the site plan.

"We found that out only inadvertently," said Amy Presley, one of the residents who spent months poring over planning documents to expose the building irregularities. "We said, 'Hey, this doesn't look right.' ... What we got from the planning staff was pretty much a runaround."

Finally, after nearly a year of complaining and demanding answers, the residents got a ruling last month from the county planning board that 433 townhouses and condos in their community had been built too tall and 102 too close to the streets. The planner who acknowledged changing the height limits on the plans resigned.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, along with the head of the county's planning board, responded by freezing building permits for all similar large developments in the county until officials can sort out what went wrong - holding up nearly 200 pending applications for weeks, and possibly a month or more.

The furor is awkward for Duncan, who is expected to vie with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley for the Democratic nomination for governor next year.

Some County Council members called for broadening the freeze to review as many as 450 more projects countywide. Amid an outcry from business and real estate leaders, the emergency measure failed last week to get the necessary two-thirds majority.

"I thought it was going overboard and would harm innocent people if there was a freeze on permits that had already been issued," said Councilman Phil Andrews of Rockville.

With investigations continuing and fines pending against the developer and builders, officials pledge to hire additional inspectors and subject new projects to increased scrutiny.

"Clearly, there were several flaws in the system that were identified, and we have moved aggressively to fix the system," said David Weaver, a spokesman for the county executive.

But the officials' response has done little to mollify residents, who accuse Duncan and his allies on the County Council of being cozy with developers.

"I think this is going to have a profound effect on the election in 2006," said activist Dolores Milmoe. "Duncan and his so-called 'End Gridlock' slate of candidates got most of their money from developers. I think the chickens are coming home to roost."

Duncan has portrayed himself as an ardent advocate of Smart Growth, despite his support for building the Inter-County Connector, an east-west highway opposed by many environmental and civic activists.

Duncan's spokesman insists that the problems in Clarksburg in no way undermine the executive's credibility as a proponent of managed growth.

"It is a Smart Growth development," Weaver said. "We're still talking about a community that's going to have shopping, retail, transit access ... [although] it may not be happening as quickly as some folks would like."

Robert Hubbard, chief of permitting services, said the building height limits were set to ensure that the new homes would be compatible with the church and older homes in historic Clarksburg.

"When you're clustering homes and you exceed the height limit, you've created a much more claustrophobic, cluttered environment," he said.

A statement issued by Newland Communities, the developer, said the San Diego-based firm does not believe it committed any violations. Many of the things residents are complaining about predated its takeover of the development two years ago, it said.

Richard Parsons, president of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce, suggested the problems might have resulted from too much planning oversight.

Responsibility for overseeing large-scale developments such as Clarksburg is shared between the county and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which also plans for Prince George's County. Montgomery's planning board is an arm of the state-sanctioned commission.

For the irate residents of Clarksburg, the process wasn't too complicated for them to figure out that they weren't getting the community they thought they had moved into.

"We were told this was going to be like Kentlands, but better," said Presley, referring to a widely acclaimed neotraditional community built near Gaithersburg in the 1990s.

She and other residents have formed an advisory committee to press for a more walkable downtown and for completion of all the amenities promised in the original plans.

"What we would like is responsible growth," she said. "Folks out here are not anti-development, but we want it done responsibly."

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