Last year, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz allegedly teamed up with the developer of the controversial Towson Gateway project, Caves Valley Partners (CVP), to threaten Councilman David Marks, who was holding up the project’s approval. CVP is a major campaign donor to Kamenetz.
Marks told The Baltimore Post that Steven Sibel, an official of CVP, confronted him during a meeting on September 19, 2016 with a cell phone message from Kamenetz saying that if Marks did not support the CVP plan to build a gas station on the site, Kamenetz would block $8 million in county money for roads and schools in Marks’ district.
While the threat had been rumored, The Baltimore Post was able to confirm the story over the last few weeks through three independent sources. When confronted with this information, Marks himself gave a brief statement describing the threat.
“I was at a meeting where Mr. Sibel showed me his cell phone and there was a message from the county executive claiming that $8 million would be cut from my district if the Planned Unit Development resolution did not advance.”
In addition to Marks and the three sources, the threat was also alluded to in a council meeting on August 7, 2017 when Sibel and Marks clashed over the Towson Gateway project.
During the meeting, Sibel accused Marks of “undermining” the Towson Gateway project “for personal political gain.” In response, Marks reminded Sibel, “You were in the room when the county executive sent the text message to you about the implications of what would happen if the resolution had not been approved.”
While Marks talked, Sibel, rather than respond, got up from the speaker’s chair and returned to the audience.
(Both Sibel and Kamenetz did not respond to requests for comment.)
The saga of the Towson Gateway project began in 2012 when the county put up for bid some unwanted land, including a 5.8-acre parcel at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue.
The original bid winner was developer Mark Sapperstein who proposed using the land for an apartment building and grocery store. But emails show that the county administration revoked the bid after the developer could not meet a two month deadline for obtaining a letter of commitment from the intended anchor-tenant, a Harris Teeter grocery chain. The bid was then awarded to CVP who said it would put a Royal Farms gas station on the site, despite furious opposition from community groups.
Because the land was not zoned for a gas station, CVP had to file a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application for the site that would waive the gas station restriction. Because the PUD would be in Marks’ district, it fell on the councilman to make the proposal.
But when Marks balked, one source said that Sibel approached Marks with the cell phone message from Kamenetz. According to the source, the message said, “tell David he just lost $8 million from his district’s budget.”
The source added that when Marks read the message he “was very, very upset.”
The source said her reaction was, “Oh my God. I don’t believe this. Are you kidding me? It was on the developer’s phone? Do you mean Kamenetz texted the developer during the meeting? And David said, ‘evidently so.’”
One month after the threat, Marks introduced the very PUD Sibel and Kamenetz wanted.
Those close to the incident said that Marks could not justify holding up roads and school projects in Perry Hall because of a fight over a gas station in Towson.
This was not the first time the county intervened to assist CVP on the Towson Gateway project.
Once the application for the PUD was approved, the county took steps to move the project forward, using public money to fund CVP’s private development plans.
Although records show the property was to be sold “as is’, County Administrator Fred Homan ordered the razing of a building last Spring as well as the removal of 30 trees on the 800 York Road property.
Estimates obtained by The Baltimore Post show that the county spent at least $80,000 over two days on the site. Homan has refused to say what legal basis he had for spending the money. Some of the money came from county funds designated for county “ground maintenance” intended for recreational areas. The site is not a recreational area.
Homan’s order to remove the trees also defied a unanimous county council vote approving the PUD that served to both protect the trees and rezone the property to allow for the gas station.
When confronted by Marks at an April 3 county council meeting, two days after the trees’ removal, Homan said it was done to accelerate the sale of the property. However, four months later, Homan unilaterally amended the contract with CVP to extend the closing date by five additional years from the original end-date of 2018 to 2023.
The contract extension is in stark contrast to the position the county took with developer Mark Sapperstein, who originally won the bid on the property. When Sapperstein could not meet demands by Kamenetz’ administration to complete the sale in two months, the county cancelled his bid. CVP has now been given 10 years.
Information obtained through Maryland’s campaign contributions database shows disparate campaign contributions between the developers to the county executive, county council members and a slate campaign. Since 2009, CVP, its affiliate companies and intended anchor tenant donated at least $160,000 to local political campaigns. Sapperstein’s contributions totaled $19,500 during the same time period.
In August, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced CVP’s willingness to negotiate with frustrated community groups, but failed to mention that, 16 days before, Homan and CVP’S Arthur Adler had extended the contract, information a source close to the negotiations said even the negotiating committee was not privy to.
Kamenetz and Homan have refused to answer repeated requests for comment on their decisions to assist CVP with its private development project.
Kamenetz and Sibel have also chosen not to respond to The Baltimore Post’s request that they state on record whether or not Marks lied about the threat made to him though Sibel’s cell phone.