Op-Ed: Last Chance for Baltimore County and Developer to Right the Wrongs of ‘Treegate’
Posted by David A. Plymyer on 13th January 2019
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Towson Gateway Anniversary Protest, April 2018. Photo Credit: Alex Foley, former Democratic candidate for Baltimore County Council, District Five

By: David A. Plymyer

The administration of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. and Caves Valley Partners (CVP) have one last chance to right the wrongs of “Treegate.”  Based on the development plan for CVP’s Towson Station project that will go before a county administrative officer for final approval on January 16th, it appears that the chance could be missed.

On April 1, 2017, a county contractor removed 30 mature trees, including six “specimen” trees, that ringed the site of the proposed commercial development at 800 York Road in Towson.  The removal of the trees became known as Treegate.  At the time of the removal of the trees, the property was owned by the county but under a contract of sale to CVP, which was walking its proposed project through the county’s development review process as the contract purchaser.

The tree removal defied a county council resolution conditioning approval of the development project on retention of the trees. It also circumvented state and county forest conservation laws and the provisions of the Downtown Towson District (DTD) zoning overlay that would have required CVP to retain the trees or replace them with trees planted on the site or elsewhere within the DTD.  The tree removal did, however, suit CVP just fine.

Based on evidence discovered by reporter Ann Costantino and published by the Baltimore Post, it appears that CVP worked in concert with former County Administrative Officer Fred Homan to get rid of the troublesome trees.  A month after the council passed its resolution requiring preservation of the trees, Mr. Homan’s administrative assistant sent the following email to a lawyer for CVP: “You were going to send Fred the site plan with the trees that needed to be removed.”

The lawyer responded: “Yep and got your phone message.  Mudd is on it!”  Mudd was another lawyer in the firm representing CVP. [Law firm for Caves Valley Partners provided site plan to county for Towson Gateway tree removal]

County Attorney Mike Field confirmed to Ms. Costantino that it was Mr. Homan who ordered removal of the trees. Mr. Homan later explained to the county council that he believed that the council’s resolution applied only to actions taken by CVP, not to actions taken by the county.  He also stated that the pesky trees were cut down to “accelerate the settlement on the property.”

In other words, county officials partnered with CVP in preparing the site for development in a way that thwarted various state and county laws that would have required CVP to retain or replace the trees.  County officials later claimed, nonsensically, that the tree removal was a county “capital improvement project.”

Those same officials, however, never bothered to explain why, if the removal was a county capital improvement project, no project plan was filed.  A project plan, including a Forest Stand Delineation and a Forest Conservation Plan, must be filed when the county clears trees from its own property as part of a capital improvement project.  The whole affair was an ugly stain upon the county that still can be removed.

The development plan that is up for final approval should have acknowledged the chicanery and remedied its consequences.  With the trees gone, the remedy under county law would be requiring replacement of the trees on the site or elsewhere within the DTD or, if neither option is feasible, requiring payment of a fee in lieu of reforestation.  There are, however, no such requirements in the plan.

Ironically, it was Treegate that helped propel Mr. Olszewski to victory in the Democratic primary last year by dooming the candidacy of former Councilwoman Vicki Almond. Treegate became symbolic of the hubris of the administration of former County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and gained a political importance that transcended the significance of 30 trees.

The public uproar over Treegate, and the recognition of the extent to which the pay-to-play culture in the county influenced land use decisions, placed Ms. Almond in an untenable position.  Heavily supported by former County Executive Jim Smith and his developer friends, she steadfastly denied the existence of pay-to-play politics.  In light of Treegate and other dubious county actions, her incongruous denials became more than voters could tolerate.

Mr. Olszewski promises transformative leadership, proposes bold new ideas and has assembled a high-powered team of advisors.  The success of his administration, however, will be judged on the ground, by how he handles situations like this.

It is not too late for Mr. Olszewski to sit down with CVP and work out a reasonable addition to the development plan that puts the Treegate scandal to rest.  Given the county’s complicity in the scandal, maybe the county and CVP can split the costs of replacing the 30 trees. What a transformative occurrence that would be:  Baltimore County government and a developer putting politics and greed aside and working together to do the right thing for the county.

– David A. Plymyer

– Mr. Plymyer retired as the County Attorney for Anne Arundel County in 2014. He also served five years as an Assistant State’s Attorney for Anne Arundel County. Mr. Plymyer now writes on matters of law and local government from his home in Catonsville, Maryland. His email address is dplymyer@comcast.net, and his website is https://davidplymyer.com/.