The Kamenetz Administration is facing a legal dilemma because of its decision to chop down trees in the middle of a heated battle over a Towson development project.
When the county made a decision to remove 30 trees at the corner of Bosley Avenue and York Road this past April, it thwarted the will of the County Council. But it also simultaneously either circumvented forest conservation laws or directly defied a state law that protected the trees.
“It was serious enough for the administration to flout the legislative will of the County Council by removing the trees in violation of the condition placed on the redevelopment by the Council,” explained David Plymyer, a former County Attorney and Assistant State Attorney. “But it becomes far more serious if the administration did so by also violating State and County forest conservation laws.”
“In my opinion, “Plymyer added, “such actions also would make it imperative that an investigation by the State Prosecutor be done in order to determine whether there was criminal malfeasance by one or more County employees.”
At the center of the issue is a state law that requires a developer to submit a forestation plan on any project larger than one acre. Presumably such a plan would have addressed the 30 trees that were cut down.
Last Friday, The Baltimore Post attempted to find out what the Towson Gateway forestation plan said.
Yet an in-person request for public documents was met with intense resistance by three departments at the county government. And while in search of the county’s Forest Conservation Plan for the “Towson Gateway” project – which falls under a state and county mandate to protect Maryland’s trees during the construction process – one thing became clear: no one wanted to release the information.
And in a strange twist, after a reporter waited for hours in government offices for an answer about the records, Baltimore County Administrator Fred Homan suddenly issued a statement through a spokeswoman saying no such plan existed.
Homan’s statement appeared to contradict interviews given by two employees at the Department of Environmental Protection & Sustainability. Both men told The Baltimore Post that the plan was sitting in a back room while a copy was being made.
That copy, however, would quickly become unavailable once three county government departments began communicating: The Department of Environmental Protection & Sustainability, The Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections, and Baltimore County’s Communications Office.
The Post caught the events on video. [KGVID]https://thebaltimorepost.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/BC-EPA-Adventure.mp4[/KGVID]
“Reviewing the files is critical,” Plymyer said. “The contents of the records kept by the Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability will disclose the extent to which the Baltimore County administration complied – if it even tried to comply – with the requirements of State and County laws governing forest conservation before the administration removed the 30 trees from the site of the proposed Towson Station development.
“With few exceptions, the County is subject to its own forest conservation laws and regulations, and I am aware of no exception that would allow the County to remove 30 trees, including 7 specimen trees, from a 5.8 acre parcel of land for the purpose of facilitating the redevelopment of the parcel by a private developer who was the contract purchaser of the property in the absence of an approved Forest Conservation Plan that allowed the County to do so.”
Under the leadership of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, in 2012 the county announced plans to put the Bosley/York property up for sale.
Home to what was previously Towson’s fire station headquarters, the property went to the highest bidder in order to, according to Kamenetz, generate revenue for school construction, as well as to fund a new police precinct and fire station at no additional cost.
Yet community members have long argued that the small footprint of the proposed gas station and convenience store the winning developer offered, would fail to bring the county the tax revenue other projects would have yielded.
Nonetheless, in a press release issued by the county, Kamenetz said “Our County Government must do business differently during these tough economic times. The old models simply will not work if you are committed to investing in public education, public safety and rebuilding an aging infrastructure while keeping tax rates stable,” he said.
Five bids were received for the Towson Gateway project. The winning bidder was Towson developer Caves Valley Partners which offered $8.5 million for the 5.8 acre property.
Although not known at the time, The Post later discovered that Caves Valley Partners, both as a company as well as through its partners and various LLCs, has made combined campaign donations of at least $138,700 to the members of the Baltimore County Council over the last eight years. Kamenetz himself received $63,000. State campaign records show that the other bidders have donated only a fraction of that amount
The Caves Valley Partners plan included a Royal Farms convenience store with a gas station, a prominent water feature, 10,000 square feet of retail space, and a 4,200 square foot restaurant or freestanding use pad. (Coincidentally, Royal Farms donated $21,300 to council members, the County Executive and a slate campaign. Kamenetz received $8,000. And so far, the combined contributions from the developer and proposed convenience store have been found to be at least $160,000.)
Community members were immediately resistant to the winning bidder and its development plan. For one, the 800 York Road property wasn’t zoned for a gas station.
Despite community protest, in December of 2016, District Five County Council Member David Marks submitted a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application that sought to change the zoning, which would allow a gas station on the property. Part of the PUD included language that protected trees on the property, including seven specimen trees that would require special protections under the law.
Some of those protections were outlined in an official Environmental Protection & Sustainability Department document. Its Concept Plan, created Caves Valley Partners, was part of the development process which was then reviewed by various agencies within county government. The document stated that the 800 York Road site was “subject to the Baltimore County Forest Conservation Law.”
The Concept Plan specified the need for the developer to start a preliminary Forest Conservation Plan, provide multiple reports and documentation, and seek a special variance for the potential removal of any specimen trees.
And, importantly, on the plan was a date: an April 4, 2017 Concept Plan meeting set to discuss the Caves Valley project and the site’s trees.
Yet that meeting would be eclipsed – by three days – by the sudden removal of 30 trees. It was a bold move the county made in advance of the meeting called to discuss some of the very trees it decided to remove.
On a cloudy April 1, 2017 morning, at the corner of Bosley Avenue and York Road, the 30 trees were cut down despite the Concept Plan and its requirements. Included in the trees removed were seven identified specimen trees.
This event triggered Councilman Marks to revise the PUD to remove the gas station component from the project.
Despite the move to amend the zoning provision, the county council failed to pass the PUD resolution, instead tabling it. The vote was split down party lines. Outvoted were Councilmen Marks, Kach and Crandall.
On August 11, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz would ask Towson developer Caves Valley Partners to come to an agreement with the community within 30 days. To date, such an agreement has not been made public.
In an effort to understand the open records procedures of other districts, The Baltimore Post reached out to the Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA) at two other Maryland counties to inquire about procedure in obtaining public documents.
A spokesman for Montgomery County’s EPA said that “if the information is readily available, you just request it. If (we) don’t have it, (we) have 10 days to let you know that. But, if (we) have it, (we) are supposed to make it available as soon as possible,” the EPA official said.
Asked about the process in obtaining any Forest Conservation Plan from the Howard County’s EPA department, a spokeswoman said something similar: “Everything is available.” The official said that one would simply walk up to a counter to ask for the file. “It is not any kind of secret,” she said.
County Administrator Homan did not respond with comment, nor The Post’s request for an interview. He also declined to answer questions regarding state and county forest conservation laws, the removal of the trees, and if he was the official who gave the directive.
The Post has served the county with two Public Information Act requests. By law, Maryland government offices have 30 days in which to provide the requested records.