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Real estate developer bait and switch small towns { July 31 2005 }

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Residents Find Small-Town Vision Blurred
In Clarksburg, Home Buyers Accuse Developer of Betraying Original Plan

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005; A01

The advertising campaign for Clarksburg Town Center presented the new home development as the embodiment of that old American ideal, the small town.

In words and pictures, promotional literature described the community as if Norman Rockwell had drawn the plans: It would have a town square, and the homes, shops and restaurants would be rendered in "traditional architectural styling."

"A new American classic town," boasted the sign inside the sales center, itself a restored historical home with a wraparound porch and white picket fence.

Now that quaint vision, and disgruntled homeowners' charge that the developers are deviating from it, has erupted into one of the most contentious development battles in the Washington area. After several residents conducted an investigation that led to the discovery of numerous height and setback violations, startled Montgomery County officials reacted this month by ordering a partial building freeze in the county.

But at its root, the Clarksburg controversy is not about technical violations, it's about something far less tangible: the suburbanites' desire to live in a place that's like a small town and not just any ordinary subdivision.

"Basically they tried to plunk a standard strip center with a Giant [supermarket] in the middle of this development that was supposed to be a town," said Amy Presley, a leader of the homeowners group. "That's when lots of people who bought homes here started to get angry."

The Clarksburg dispute is of a new sort, arising not over how densely the land should be developed but over the architectural quality of the "town" that would be created by the development's shops and 1,300 homes.

Residents who have pressed their case are measuring the development against the principles of "new urbanism," a growing architectural movement cited by the developer that disdains contemporary sprawl and seeks to emulate the character of such historical places as Alexandria or Annapolis. Many developers now align their projects with such efforts.

Clarksburg Town Center residents say the developers and home builders assured them that the town would be "like Kentlands, only better," referring to a nationally recognized new urbanist project in Gaithersburg.

"I wanted the feeling like you are in your own little town," said Kim Shiley, a member of the neighborhood group. "But it appears to have become a place where the developers said, Let's just do what we do everywhere else."

Representatives of the developer, Newland Communities, declined to be interviewed about the homeowners' complaints in detail last week. But in a statement, Rick Croteau, president of the mid-Atlantic region for the company, said others have welcomed the proposed grocery store in a retail center with a parking lot.

"Many residents of Clarksburg Town Center have shared with us that they are looking forward to the grocery store," the statement said. "They believe that the grocery store is consistent with the vision for the Town Center; and is an amenity that will provide them with a much-needed convenience."

The Retail Question

The allure of small-town charm in a sprawl-weary world has not been lost on developers, who in one project after another promise a Mayberry-like sense of community.

Clarksburg Town Center, near Interstate 270 in northern Montgomery County, will "provide an opportunity for a vital civic environment in the Town Square, which reflects the democratic tradition of our communities," one of its brochures says.

But exactly what kind of retail center would embody those high-minded principles is a matter of dispute.

What both sides agree on is that the conflict began in earnest July 27 of last year, during a meeting at a nearby church where the developer presented plans for the town square and adjoining retail center.

Giving retail centers a Main Street feel while attracting tenants who often prefer the easy automobile access of suburban strip stores has been one of the most daunting challenges for new urbanist planners.

At the meeting, developer representatives presented drawings of a more contemporary retail center than what many neighbors had in mind: a 60,000-square-foot grocery store and other shops arranged around a 300-car parking lot.

"They'd promised the Kentlands, only better," Presley said. "It was a question of lifestyle. I thought I'd be able to walk to upscale restaurants and have a glass of wine. But I don't think anyone will be congregating in front of the Giant or having a glass of wine in front of the dry cleaner."

One of the key points in the dispute is the amount of office and retail space in the town center, which has been scaled down from 250,000 square feet to roughly half that. Unlike many development disputes, the complaining neighbors actually want more retail building, not less. But Newland representatives have argued that the market would not support the number of shops and restaurants that neighbors are calling for.

Since the church meeting, Newland has revised the plan. The proposed Giant still would front a parking lot, but for a few blocks, some small shops would open onto the sidewalk, as if on a Main Street. Company representatives have depicted this as a fulfillment of traditional town planning ideas.

Shiley, Presley and other neighbors believe that the plan could be better, and some experts agree.

"The developer is going part of the way there," said Rob Steuteville, editor of New Urban News, which tracks new urbanism projects across the country. He noted approvingly that the plan shows stores off sidewalks around the town green, an arrangement similar to historical cities -- and unlike suburban strips such as those flanking Rockville Pike or Lee Highway.

However, he said, the project's overall quality is a long way off from the model of Kentlands or of historical towns. Among other things, some of the garages at Clarksburg Town Center face the street, and some of the design comes off as superficial, Steuteville said.

He noted that developers often use new urbanist language -- promising "pedestrian friendly streets" and "town centers" -- but deliver something more conventional.

"I don't think it's going to be at all like Kentlands. Kentlands is another order of quality," Steuteville said. "Frankly, if the home buyers thought they were going to get Kentlands, they didn't take a close enough look at the plans."

Altered Plans

By now, several of the homeowners have looked very closely at the plans.

Presley, Shiley and others have compiled huge piles of documents showing how the project -- started by one developer, sold to Terrabrook and eventually to Newland Communities -- has been altered, often without public input.

Montgomery officials have conceded that some of the buildings at Clarksburg Town Center were built about five feet taller than permitted on approved documents and that some building-setback limits were violated.

The neighbors, citing their research, claim that additional major changes were made to the approved plans -- moving condominium buildings hundreds of feet from a valley to a ridge, removing a road in one place and adding one elsewhere -- without public hearings. Their hope is to push the developer to amend the retail center plan to satisfy their new urbanist vision.

"The only thing I can tell you is that we are looking at all of these issues," said Rose Krasnow, chief of the county planning department's Development Review Division. "There's a lot of research that needs to be done."

The neighbors' discontent and ensuing sleuthing into building practices has had far-reaching consequences for builders across the county. But for the homeowners, their fight started -- and continues to be -- to see their small-town visions realized.

"I never thought it would come to this," Shiley said, referring to the partial building freeze. "There is a serious flaw in our planning process. But the critical part is that this flaw has allowed the developers to depart from the vision of a historically linked small town."

2005 The Washington Post Company

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