Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Montgomery’s Planning Board Needs a Large Dose of Sunshine

In the Gazette the week of July 4, 2005, there is extensive coverage of a scandal that has beset Montgomery County’s planning officials. To condense a long story, the massive development planned for the formerly pristine rural village of Clarksburg, in northern Montgomery County, has hit a major snag in the form of a developer’s plan violations — and government planner(s)’ collaboration in this malfeasance. This scandal centers on “allegations that a planner falsified documents to make it appear builders did not violate construction limits in the massive Clarksburg Town Center.” Given that a crisis is often an opportunity, this crisis of confidence in our planning system is an opportunity for “citizen sunshine,” grassroots democracy in action, to illuminate the dark spots and pinpoint needed reforms.

Developers are in the process of transforming Clarksburg, now a rural crossroads of corn and horse farms, into a new suburbia of as many as 13,000 homes. Approved plans require that no buildings shall exceed the height of the steeple on the United Methodist Church. This landmark is supposed to remain, through the town’s transition, as the tallest spot in the Town Center and the Clarksburg Historic District. But the developer, with one (or more?) planners’ help, violated that approved plan. Thanks to the diligent research, organizing, documentation, and advocacy efforts of a group of Clarksburg residents called the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, gross violations of building height restrictions and other planning restrictions have been brought to light. According to the Gazette, more than 500 houses have been built too tall or too close to streets. And so the place of honor and prominence reserved for the Methodist Church, for this reminder of the original town, is now ruined, overshadowed by the 489 units that violated height limits and crowded by the 102 units that violated the setback requirements specified in the Project Plan.

Jumping to try to claim the moral high ground, top Planning Board staffers Rose Krasnow and Charles R. Loehr are calling for a “stem-to-stern examination of how the county oversees development,” according to the 7/8/05 Gazette article by Margie Hyslop and Douglas Tallman. But whether this investigation ultimately covers the complete range of problems, concerning the role of developers in our government’s planning process, remains to be seen. Without full participation and oversight of independent government officials and private citizens, such a thoroughgoing examination is rather unlikely. We citizens who care about a “Liveable Montgomery” have our work cut out for us.

We elect our County Council members to represent our interests in County-level policy, including the capital budget for schools, ecological protection, and public works and to enact the body of local ordinances that are supposed to protect the public wellbeing and safety. But we also rely upon our County Council members to represent the public interest when they make appointments and decide who will sit on the Planning Board. The five Commissioners on the Planning Board each serve four-year terms, subject to re-appointment for a possible total of eight years. We the people of Montgomery County must then rely on the Planning Commissioners to preserve our natural resources and the cultural heritage of our County even as it continues to experience further development. It is the job of the Commissioners to review development proposals to ensure that they comport with the relevant master plan and with other community interests and existing policies and restrictions.

Citizen advocates for historic and ecological preservation have struggled for years with the feeling that too often, (with a few notable exceptions), too many Commissioners and staff are not listening to us, don’t care about preserving a “liveable Montgomery,” and essentially see themselves as the developers’ partners and glorified rubber stampers. There are also notable exceptions to this disappointment, for instance, in the case of the Legacy Open Space program where, happily, decisions favoring preservation (bankrolled by the Taxpayers) have been taken. But for too long, the Planning Board commisssioners and staff have operated with little or no accountability to anyone and with far too close a relationship to developers. (After all, the Commissioners are appointed by a largely-developer-funded Council.) For the next two Thursdays, July 14 & 21, the Planning Board will hear further testimony in the Clarksburg scandal. The County Council itself will hold a hearing on the Clarksburg mess on Monday, July 18. Citizens can provide some needed sunshine on this too-shadowy part of our local government by showing up at one or more of these hearings and by writing to express your concerns to Derek Berlage, Planning Board Chairman, and Council President Tom Perez.

Are you a citizen who has experienced being an advocate for historic, environmental, or community character preservation before the Planning Board? Do you have a story or an analysis to share from your experience (the good, the bad, the mediocre?) that can help us to create a “body of citizen knowledge” that can point to needed reforms? If so, you can contribute here in this Blog to this “shining of some civic light.” Please contribute your Planning Board stories and experiences here, and I will compile them and ensure that they see an even brighter light through the broadest possible distribution that I can organize. What does “government accountability” mean to you? How can we change the system so that the system serves the people and not primarily the developers? Please join the conversation and let your light shine in!

Diane M. Cameron


Blogger OnBackground said...

Are the recent efforts by the Council in the right direction to stem future such abuses?

7/19/2005 10:36:00 AM  

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