O'Malley takes growth ideas to Duncan turf

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is likely to get a friendly reception today when he visits Clarksburg in Montgomery County to promote his ideas on how to manage growth better in Maryland.

The residents of the 1,300-home planned community in the Washington suburbs are miffed about hundreds of building violations discovered there last year -- a glaring example, they contend, of development run amok. At least some of their pique is directed at Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who just happens to be O'Malley's rival for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Though credited by statewide groups as a champion of rural preservation and of redeveloping the county's aging municipalities, Duncan gets few hosannas from local activists. They complain that the three-term executive and the majority of the County Council that he helped elect are too cozy with developers, and that the county's schools are overcrowded and roads congested as a result.

O'Malley's Montgomery foray -- which includes presiding over a town hall meeting on sustainable growth -- comes as the Democratic contenders jockey for an edge on the issue of controlling sprawling suburban development -- which some polls indicate could sway votes in the primary and general elections. A Sun poll last fall found that most Marylanders think their communities are growing too fast, with anti-growth sentiment strongest in the suburbs.

"We're very pleased to have him out here," Amy Presley said of O'Malley's visit. One of the community leaders who unmasked the building violations, Presley said that she has never had the chance to give the same "50-cent tour" of illegally oversized townhouses and condominiums in Clarksburg to Duncan, even though she has offered.

Duncan's spokesmen said the executive has been to Clarksburg, and they contend that O'Malley can learn plenty about well-planned development from his rival, who was mayor of Rockville before winning county office.

"We were practicing Smart Growth even before it was a phrase,"' said David Weaver, the executive's spokesman.

O'Malley is not venturing into Duncan's home turf to hear residents sing his praises, however, but to exploit a perceived weakness in his political base in the state's most populous county.

"I hope he has his hip boots on," says Dan Wilhelm, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, a frequent critic of Duncan.

"Some things he's done good," Wilhelm said of Duncan, pointing to the commercial renaissance of downtown Silver Spring. But, Wilhelm added, "He's pro-development, pro-business. He keeps trying to encourage more development but doesn't provide the infrastructure to support it."

Drew Powell, chairman of another activist group, Neighbors for a Better Montgomery, said political contribution records show that Duncan and his council slate were heavily bankrolled in the 2002 election by development interests, which he contends have received favorable treatment since.

While Duncan and the slate of council candidates he supported ran on an "end gridlock" campaign, Powell contends that traffic congestion has gotten worse in recent years. Many schools are overcrowded, he said, with hundreds of portable classrooms filling the gap while officials redefined the rules on school capacity to allow building to proceed.

Activists also have sparred with the Duncan administration over "surplusing" of unused school sites.

Mark Adelman, chairman of the civic federation's education committee, said Duncan had sought to build more affordable housing in the affluent county on old school land, but activists objected that the properties might be needed for schools in the future.

"Nobody has done more to fight congestion than Doug Duncan," said spokesman Weaver. Duncan has been a longtime supporter of the Intercounty Connector, an east-west highway linking Montgomery with Prince George's that many environmental and community activists oppose. But Weaver said that if the ICC and other road and transit projects Duncan backed had been funded by the state, the county's congestion would be significantly eased.

However, Clarksburg crystallized complaints about government oversight of development when residents there unearthed documents showing that hundreds of townhouses and condos in the 268-acre community had exceeded height or setback limits -- and that a planner altered documents in an apparent attempt to paper over the violations.

The revelations prompted the planner to resign, and Duncan imposed a temporary building ban until officials could sort out what went wrong. His spokesmen said oversight responsibility lay with an agency that was not under Duncan's control.

Land use and development in Montgomery County are overseen by a planning board, whose chairman is chosen by the County Council and confirmed by the executive -- a reversal of typical political appointments.

"No one was more outraged than Doug about the situation in Clarksburg," said Scott Arceneaux, his campaign manager. Duncan introduced legislation strengthening the role of his permitting department in overseeing development and appointed an ombudsman to work with residents to remedy the problems they had uncovered, the spokesman said.

Presley said that an outside mediator worked with the developer and builders to restore some of the villagelike features to the community design that had been abandoned. Those included a walkable link to the remaining historic Clarksburg community and a commercial area of pedestrian-friendly shops and restaurants rather than a large suburban-style supermarket.

But nothing could be done about the oversized buildings, she said, and subsequent inquiries have revealed similar violations at other developments. She said she holds Duncan accountable.

"Certainly it's his county," she said. "He's the highest-level gatekeeper we have."

Duncan spokesmen and supporters say he's done the right thing on Clarksburg, but they reject any suggestion that he laid the county open to sprawl or poorly planned development.

"Montgomery County is among the strictest in both zoning and land use permitting approaches of any jurisdiction in the nation," said Richard N. Parsons, president of the county Chamber of Commerce. He called activists' complaints "myths." Montgomery County leads the nation in farmland preservation, he said, and overall population has been growing at 2 percent or less since 1990.

Parsons said Duncan's tiffs with community activists should be seen as proof of his ability to get things done.

"Nothing in Montgomery County is easy," Parsons said. "We get huge neighborhood-based opposition groups turning out to protest against a sidewalk or a jogging trail. It's a very different ballgame, compared to the Baltimore area."

As for Clarksburg's Presley, she said she's a Republican, so ineligible to vote in the Democratic primary. But she said she's looking forward to hearing what O'Malley has to say about managing development in the state.

"It's not a Democrat-Republican issue," she said.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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