The chairman of the county Planning Board, Derick P. Berlage, hailed the outcome as one of the largest fines in its history. But critics such as Jim Humphrey of the Montgomery County Civic Federation said the deal is symptomatic of how development problems often are handled: Those with money can buy their way out of trouble.
Ryan Homes is selling townhouses in the 59-unit Seaton Square development in Silver Spring's White Oak section for as much as $600,000, according to real estate data.
"The Planning Board got bullied," said Humphrey, who sat through Thursday's board meeting, which turned into a lengthy bargaining session that ended about 11:30 p.m. in a nearly deserted Silver Spring auditorium.
"We believe violations did occur and are exploring legal options to challenge the board's decision," Humphrey said.
Ryan Homes brought at least three top company officials and three prominent county development lawyers to plead its case. The officials said that the company was eager to keep doing business in Montgomery and that they were worried about their firm's reputation.
Their first offer -- to pay $92,250 and admit no wrongdoing -- was rejected quickly by the five-member Planning Board, as was a second offer to double the money. After a few hours and several hallway discussions between company officials and their attorneys, the third offer came: $276,750. The Planning Board approved it, 4 to 1, agreeing to avoid citing the company for violations.
"We want to apologize for being here. We take a great deal of pride in our business in Montgomery County and look forward to many more years of being here," said Don Ashbaugh, a local president of the national company.
In November, county officials halted work at Seaton Square after a preliminary review showed that the homes were too tall and too close to rear neighbors and that the developer had failed to create paths and play areas on time. County officials subsequently found only height violations.
Seaton Square is one of several developments to face increased county scrutiny in the wake of last year's discovery of construction irregularities at the 1,300-home Clarksburg Town Center in northern Montgomery, where homes were found to have been built too tall and too close to neighbors and the street.
As the Clarksburg controversy unfolded, county officials agreed last year to review other recently approved developments -- including Seaton Square -- after activists and some members of the County Council said they feared that similar irregularities might exist elsewhere.
The settlement occurred at the tail end of a 4 1/2 -hour hearing that included a high-stakes political bargaining session in which two of Ryan's attorneys, Kevin Kennedy and Tim Dugan, hinted that the company would sue if the Planning Board did not agree to the company's proposal.
Most of the homes in the development, near Route 29 and Lockwood Drive, are taller than 35 feet and might be as high as 39 feet, county data show.
Almost all of the townhouses have been purchased and are occupied, and the settlement will not force owners whose townhouses exceed the height limit to alter them.
Commissioner Meredith Wellington cast the only dissenting vote, saying the board should have decided whether Ryan broke the rules before agreeing to accept any payments.
Wellington's comments echoed the view of the Planning Board's staff, which in a 23-page report recommended that the board find that the company had violated height limits.
"The development community in general, and Ryan Homes in specific, has not paid close attention to the development standards set by the Board at the time of approval," the report said.
The staff also blamed county inspectors and planners because they failed to uncover the violations. The building plans Ryan Homes submitted to the county showed that the townhouses would be a few feet higher than the 35-foot limit.
As in many recent disputes over construction irregularities reviewed by the Planning Board, attorneys for the builder said the homes were built only after the company had obtained approvals from the planning department and building permits from the Department of Permitting Services.
But Wellington said the builder "knew or should have known or they should have found out" what the rules are.