Photo Source: Baltimore County Government – CVP-TF – Royal Farms gas station and retail space
Boasting of grand plans for downtown Towson, in 2013 County Executive Kevin Kamenetz unveiled his “It’s Towson’s Time” campaign.
“New homes, new stores, new restaurants, new offices. ‘Live where you work, shop and play’ is more than a slogan in downtown Towson,” a Baltimore County promotional video crowed.
But over the last four years, the lofty vision of a luxury gateway has morphed into what neighbors of the project consider a bargain basement entrance.
Instead of gleaming buildings surrounded by greenspace, residents near the corner of Bosley Avenue and York Road have been offered a 12-pump, 24-hour Royal Farms gas station, convenience store, and retail spaces – – all within a one mile radius of six other gas stations.
And trees that were supposed to be protected on the Towson Gateway property to preserve green space were mysteriously chopped down.
Even more puzzling to residents is that the Baltimore County Council seems to acquiesce to every zig and zag the developer takes.
To find out why, The Baltimore Post, using Maryland’s campaign database, has done a detailed computer analysis of campaign donations to the Baltimore County government. What it has found is that Caves Valley Partners, the developer the county chose for the site, has been funneling tens of thousands of dollars over the last eight years to the County Executive, the Baltimore County Council and a slate campaign.
The sheer size of their donations, however – the latest estimate is at least $160,000, which includes over $28,800 in donations by Royal Farms – is raising the question of who exactly county officials are representing: Towson residents or Caves Valley Partners.
One lawmaker said the answer was simple.
“I made a very deliberate decision not to accept contributions from Caves Valley during the serious deliberations for the Towson Gateway project,” Towson’s Councilman David Marks told The Post. “And I don’t expect to receive any more contributions from them, given what has happened (with Towson Gateway).”
Up until 2014, Marks received over $20,000 in campaign contributions from the developer through its affiliates and partners – the most of any of the other council members. Yet, unlike continued donations to the majority of the County Council and County Executive, records show that donations to Marks’ campaign came to a screeching halt in December 2014 when he decided it represented a conflict of interest.
Initially The Baltimore Post reported that Caves Valley Partners and affiliates had donated approximately $100,000. By sorting donors by street addresses in the state’s campaign database, researchers found that Caves Valley Partners would donate multiple checks in a single day, supposedly coming from multiple companies. However, all of these companies had the same office addresses and suite numbers.
And a search of state corporation records also found that the officers in these companies were identical to the principals of Caves Valley Partners.
In addition, Royal Farms, which wants to build the 24-hour gas station, made $28,800 in donations since 2011 under parent company, Two Farms. Included in the total: the principal of Royal Farms’ $3000 personal donation, as well as a $6,000 donation from Enfield Realty in 2013, which Two Farms acquired in 2012.
While the total donations may go higher as more front companies are uncovered, it now appears that the developer and Royal Farms spent at least $160,000 on Baltimore County politicians, more than 50% of which ($83,000) occurred between 2013 and the last recorded reporting month. Yet the total donation amount rises to at least $177,000 if donations to former Baltimore County Council members, defeated in the last election, are included.
Donations to some councilmen were relatively small. Councilmen Todd Crandell and Julian Jones received $2,850 and $4,500, respectively. Councilman Wade Kach received $1,000 from the developer and another $5,000 from Royal Farms.
More generous contributions were given by the developer and affiliates to Councilwomen Cathy Bevins and Vicki Almond, who both pocketed approximately $11,000. Councilman Tom Quirk received close to $13,000 and the A Better Baltimore County Slate brought in over $20,000.
But the big winner was County Executive Kamenetz. The Post’s most recent findings show he has received at least $71,500 in campaign contributions from Caves Valley Partners and its affiliates, as well as Royal Farms, since 2009. The high-water mark for these donations occurred within a two day period in 2015, in which nine checks yielded $17,000. Royal Farms (Two Farms) gave the County Executive $6,000. Eight checks, totaling $8,000, were given by eight individual Caves Valley Partners’ LLCs – all located at 1 Olympic Drive – at $1,000 apiece. And three Caves Valley partners shelled out $1,000 each, personally.
Apparently the men who run Caves Valley see that as a good investment.
The Towson developer has had other projects in the region, such as the ongoing Towson Row project and Towson City Center, which was completed in 2012. In a 2014 article on some of their development endeavors, Arthur Adler, listed as a Partner in Caves Valley, told The Baltimore Sun that his company’s campaign donations were an example of the public and private sector working “hand-in-hand.”
“Simply put,” Adler explained, “we believe that good government requires smart, honest and straightforward people in elected office.”
Adler, nor the other partners at Caves Valley Partners, responded to our request for comment on the donations. County Executive Kamenetz’ office and campaign team also chose not to comment.
Prior to 2015, an individual could not give more than $4,000 to a candidate during an election cycle. However, there was a loophole for Limited Liability Corporations – so-called LLCs . Thus the contributions by the various Caves Valley LLCs to candidates like Kamenetz were legal.
However, after 2015, the law changed. If a batch of LLCs were not 80% owned by the same members of a corporation, they could still take advantage of the LLC loophole, allowing for each of their political contributions to be seen as coming from its own independent source. Since it is impossible to know if Caves Valley Partners passed the 80% rule, they too may be perfectly legal. An inquiry posed by the Baltimore Post, to the Maryland State Board of Elections, has been elevated to the director and is awaiting response.
In all, Caves Valley Partners funneled money to the Baltimore County Council, the County Executive and a slate campaign through over 25 different front companies that made over 115 separate donations over eight years. Included in the count are the developer’s executives, such as Steven Fader, Steve Sibel, Arthur Adler, Arsh Mirmiran and Craig Colton (at the time a principal at Caves Valley Partners) in which donations were made in their own names, as well as through additional LLCs affiliated directly with the men.
For comparison, Vanguard and its affiliates, the second highest campaign contributor of the five companies who bid on the Towson Gateway property, invested approximately $38,000 – or 24% – of what Caves Valley Partners and affiliates brought to the table for Baltimore County’s elected officials.
It is not exactly clear what the developer has stood to gain with its robust contributions to Baltimore County officials. After all, the County Council votes on matters relating to service contracts, and not ones dealing with construction, according to a county government official.
Where the Council’s power really lies for developers, deals is in the realm of zoning. And, in the case of Caves Valley Partners, not only has zoning not been an issue, but neither have legal agreements created as a condition of sale and development on the Towson Gateway property.
As a result, the community has grown increasingly concerned with how the County and Caves Valley Partners have proceeded with the project.
On an April 1, 2017 morning, the county felled 30 trees located on the 800 York Road Towson Gateway property. Despite clear and precise protections given the trees under the Planned Unit Development (PUD) application and agreement that served to pave way for a gas station on a property not zoned for one at that location – the trees were removed by the county. The County Council had also passed a specific resolution – proposed by Councilman Marks – to protect the trees.
According to a Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability Concept Plan concerning the Towson Gateway project, as part of that PUD for development of the property, requirements included the need for a special variance for dealing with the trees, a preliminary forest conservation plan, diagrams labeling all existing specimen trees, a plan specifying removal and retention of individual trees, and the submittal of an environmental agreement – all prior to obtaining permits to build on the property. The trees were removed three days before the April 4th Concept Plan Development Conference was set to occur, which outlined the detailed provisions for Towson Gateway property and its trees.
And it was the sudden removal of the trees, on a property that was to be sold “as-is,” that further angered opponents of the project, triggering Councilman Marks’ about face.
“The tree removal was a clear violation of the law,” Marks said.
As a result, the councilman rescinded his support of the project, writing a Planned Unit Development (PUD) revision that was – to the disappointment of Towson residents – tabled at the August 7th County Council meeting.
The County Executive has since given the developer 30 days in which to mediate with community groups. Negotiations between the developer and the community continue and may result in the removal of the gas station from the project, sources close to the project say.
However, the fate of the remaining trees, as well as the restoration of the community’s trust that officials represent their interests – and not that of Caves Valley Partners – is unclear.
In January, Maryland State Senators Jim Brochin and Johnny Ray Salling aimed to end what has been seen as a “pay to play” culture in Baltimore County. Introducing Senate Bill 164, the senators sought to stifle the influence that some campaign contributions have on elected officials. The bill failed to pass committee, but is a start, some say.
At the close of the August meeting in which the PUD revision was tabled, Brochin encouraged community members to keep fighting. “You all deserve a better government than you got in there. Just keep fighting,” he said. “Developers run the show here. That is not the way government is supposed to work. Keep up the fight and end ‘pay to play’ in Baltimore County,” Brochin said. “The government is yours. It is not the developers’,” said the senator. “This is your county, not the developers’ county.”
Computer analysis done by Elliot Jaspin