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A Gateway to Development?
Debate rages on over the controversial Towson Gateway Project where winning developer, Caves Valley Partners, has had big plans in store for a Towson intersection: a two-restaurant, 12-pump, 24-hour convenience store and gas station, complete with space for commercial trucks – right on the corner of Bosley Avenue and York Road, near a church, school and residential neighborhoods.
One sticking point: At the time Caves Valley bid on the property, it wasn’t actually zoned for a gas station; and neighboring Towson residents opposed it, exactly for that reason – and others, to little avail.
Records now reveal a litany of robust campaign contributions by the Maryland developer and associated executives to Baltimore County elected officials, including County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, County Council members and a campaign slate fund formed by the County Executive – overall totaling at least $100,000.
Nearly two-thirds of those political contributions occurred in 2013 and beyond, after Caves Valley won the bid, though the project remained reliant on further approval by the county council.
Tomorrow, Aug. 7, council members are slated to vote on a revised resolution that would actually remove the gas station component. So far, it’s unclear what some council members will do.
“It’s Towson’s Time”
In 2013, Kamenetz began his “It’s Towson’s Time” campaign which included detailed plans for Towson, with luxury at its core. Featured was a multi-million dollar development with mixed-use spaces for living, working and shopping – the Towson Row project.
The same developer for the currently stalled Towson Row endeavor also won the bid for the Towson Gateway property, with schematic plans boasting of seasonal plantings, a waterfall feature and luxury appeal – even for a gas station.
Community members don’t want it, however, and feel the County’s plans fail to include residents’ input. “You need to start listening to us. We live here and we drive here and we should have a say in this,” said Towson resident, Jennifer Bolster, at a contentious May 2017 community input meeting, attended by over 200 community members.
Three years earlier, in March of 2014, a “It’s Towson’s Time” cocktail reception kicked off the county’s plans at Goucher College. Moderated by the Director of the Baltimore County Department of Economic and Workforce Development, the ticketed event ($70 for members, $95 for non-members) sold out. The reception included a panel consisting of leadership from Goucher College and Towson University, a leasing and asset management executive for Towson Commons, and two real estate developers, including Arsh Miriman from Caves Valley Partners, the winning development company for both Towson Row and The Towson Gateway projects.
Records show the winning developer – and the to-be Royal Farms inhabitants of the space – also won when it came to campaign donations for Baltimore County’s elected officials.
Through multiple names, acronyms, LLCs, and personal donations by some of the partners and executives – compared to other bidders on the project – together Caves Valley and Royal Farms outdid themselves in campaign contributions for Baltimore County’s leadership. And for all of the County’s leadership who have control over the approval of contracts and spending the County’s tax money.
As a result, some are left wondering: If this is truly “Towson’s Time,” whose Towson is this, exactly?
Sources show that five official bids were submitted in 2013 on the county owned land. One stood out above the rest: a $8.3 million bid won by the developer who had a plan incompatible with the zoning regulations for the property.
Nonetheless, in December 2016, a Planned Unit Development (PUD), proposed by District Five Councilman David Marks, was submitted to the county in order to get the ball rolling for Caves Valley’s development of the property, thus paving the way for the project. Upset over what would become known as Tree-gate, Marks has since rescinded his support, revising the PUD resolution which will go before all council members during the Aug. 7 vote.
Also paving the way was Baltimore County government, itself, when on a quiet April 1st morning, 30 mature trees were unceremoniously removed without permit nor regard for the Forest Conservation Act designed to protect specimen trees on the property.
Defying the PUD and the Removal of Trees
One of the flash points for community members in this heated topic was that the approval of the PUD hinged specifically on the protection of the trees on the property. Moreover, Caves Valley was to purchase the property “as is.” The disregard for the agreement and obfuscation that ensued “added insult to injury,” Towson resident, Mary Ellen Pease, told the Post.
“Just like in the Wizard of Oz, when someone said ‘which way do we go?’ and the scarecrow points with both hands in opposite directions, at the same time, that is the kind of response we get when we ask who is responsible for cutting down those trees,” said Pease. “No one is taking responsibility.”
Caves Valley and Associated Political Contributions
Records show that at least one of the losing bidders, Vanguard, contributed in excess of $20,000 to the County Executive and four County Council members. More than $13,000 of those dollars were directed solely to Councilwoman Almond between 2012 and 2017.
Yet data found in the government database on Caves Valley, its associated partners, their firms and Royal Farms revealed contributions from 2010 to 2017 to the County Executive, a slate campaign account formed by the County Executive called A Better Baltimore County Slate, and all seven council members.
And what was revealed was that there was quite a lot of contributing.
The total amount of these contributions, including those given as personal donations by the firm’s executives, as well as Royal Farms (“Two Farms, Inc.”), exceed $100,000, records show.
Some variations of the names associated with Cave Valley’s political contributions include: Caves Valley Partners, CVP-TF LLC, Caves Valley Partners Security Blvd LLC., CVP Towson City Center and others.
Other contributions are associated with the principals of Caves Valley and include SJS Development, Mirmiran Atlantic Property Development as well as the names of specific partners at Caves Valley Partners, itself.
Records also clearly demonstrate that $64,150 of the combined political contributions occurred in 2013 and beyond — the year the Towson Gateway property bid was won by Caves Valley and when the community began opposing the sale of the property to the developer.
County Executive Kamenetz:
2013 and beyond: $20,000
2013 and beyond: $500
2013 and beyond: $3,800
2013 and beyond: $1,850
2013 and beyond: $6,000
2013 and beyond: $2,000
2013 and beyond: $4,500
2013 and beyond: $5,500
Kamenetz’ A Better Baltimore Slate:
2013 and beyond: $20,000
When the County Executive and Council members were asked if each were aware of the arbitrage-like nature of the of the campaign donations, Councilman Wade Kach responded. “Thank you to all the citizens who have contributed to my campaigns for House of Delegates and County Council. I can assure everyone that I have never put pressure on any individual or group to contribute to my campaigns. At this point, my intention is to vote in favor of the PUD revision which has been introduced by the Fifth District Council member.”
While elected officials do not have control over who chooses to contribute to their campaigns, responses to the Post’s inquiry about the contributions were not immediately received by the County Executive, the other council members or Caves Valley on this matter.
A majority vote for the PUD revision stands to reverse the zoning variance which would ultimately kill Caves Valley’s plan for a Royal Farms gas station on the property.
If the majority of council members do not support the PUD revision, however, the clock won’t necessarily run out for community members, as Towson residents are prepared for litigation, some say.
And if this is, indeed, “Towson’s Time,” as the County Executive has campaigned, then Towson’s residents have every right to be part of the process.