An empty field and piles of dirt are still part of Clarksburg. "It's… (Melina Mara )
It was to be a model suburb, a chance for Montgomery County to get it right. In Clarksburg Town Center, the vision was for an intimate, walkable community, shops, a library, restaurants and public transportation close by. Home buyers, attracted by large houses with relatively moderate prices at low interest rates, were drawn to the northern Montgomery community, even camping out overnight for the chance to buy the home of their dreams.
But for many, the promise of Clarksburg Town Center remains unrealized. More than 10 years after ground was broken, and more than five years after a group of residents unearthed construction irregularities by developer Newland Communities, county officials and residents remain mired in disputes over how to push the project over the finish line.
The latest round of angry assertions and counterclaims involves issues that arose long after the initial controversy in 2005 made Clarksburg shorthand for lax oversight, in a county with a long-standing reputation for good government.
The promised retail core, which was to be the centerpiece of the development, is still a mound of dirt. The county fire and rescue service, prodded by residents, has forced the developer to spend about $1 million to widen turns and restrict parking in 19 spots because firetrucks could not get through. Activists found that more than $2 million in promised landscaping was never done. County government and residents remain divided over who should foot the bill for roads, parks and a library. Newland says tough economic times have caught up with it, making it hard to attract interest in developing the retail center. A dispute over how much parking should be available to shoppers and residents is still festering.
To add to the tension, Newland sued community activists last year, saying they have thwarted the development. Arbitrator Barbara Kerr Howe has mostly kept the matter behind closed doors, so the details and outcome may never be publicly known.
"One would think that by now we would have gotten a little closer to agreeing on all the things that need to happen," said Kathy Mitchell, the county's Clarksburg ombudsman, who has held the post for almost three years but who will be out of work Jan. 31 because of budget constraints.
On Thursday, the Montgomery County Planning Board, whose previous leadership had been criticized for allowing buildings in Clarksburg Town Center that were too tall, front yards that were too small and streets that were too narrow, will weigh in on a recent round of accusations by its staff against Newland.
In a biting assessment of the developer's latest proposal, planner Robert Kronenberg last month cited more than 400 instances in which the developer made unilateral and unapproved changes to plans for the community. If the board agrees with Kronenberg, the company could face thousands of dollars in fines that the county agreed to forgo five years ago.
Douglas C. Delano, a Newland vice president overseeing the Clarksburg Town Center development, sounded a conciliatory tone. "We want to get this done," he said after submitting three boxes of newly revised plans to Kronenberg late last week.
"We share the concern that there be no errors or discrepancies in the plans," he said. "That's what got Clarksburg in trouble four or five years ago."
Residents say no matter who is at fault, it's time for the project to be completed.
Emily Lederer, who with her husband moved into Clarksburg Town Center almost eight years ago, said she and many of her neighbors are eager for an end to the controversies.
"It is definitely confusing and frustrating," she said. "Everybody moved in here on the assumption that these amenities would be built not too far after the time we moved in. . . . It's hard to see that big, empty spot with the big dirt mound."
Robert Rifkin moved with his wife from nearby Derwood three years ago, fully aware of the controversies. "I guess we were naive. We thought that once the county knew about this, and these mistakes were made, the county would make things right.
"From this experience, I will never move into a community that is not completed. We could not trust what was told to us. It has been a real education," he said.
County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), whose district includes Clarksburg, said there have been some positive signs in recent years. A park has opened, roads have been completed and a middle school is on the drawing board, because of community pressure.
"We have made some progress, but it continues to be an amazingly frustrating effort because there are so many things that are unresolved," he said.
Knapp said he thinks the Planning Board will insist that the developer comply with plans the board approved two years ago, which the planning staff says Newland recently altered without permission.