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The “Small” Towson Gateway Story Tells a Much Bigger Tale
Posted by Ann Costantino on 10th December 2017
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Developer, Caves Valley Partners   ——By: Ann Costantino—–

Photo Source: Roger Gookin

Baltimore County government officials, who have adamantly refused to talk about the controversial Towson Gateway project, are slowly being forced to reveal new details about the assistance it gave Caves Valley Partners (CVP), the developer and longtime political supporter of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

Despite those new details, county officials insist that the story of Towson Gateway is a “small” issue, one that has been sufficiently covered.

In response to numerous Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) requests filed by The Baltimore Post, newly released records reveal the following:

  • Emails the county initially claimed did not exist regarding the removal of more than 30 trees from the Bosley Avenue/York Road site were exchanged, and reveal an orchestrated effort to remove them, several termed specimen trees, no later than “March 31.”
  • An apparent rush to demolish a building and cut down the canopy trees occurred just days before a key April 4th meeting that would likely have determined the fate of the development.
  • The cost to raze the building on the property was supposed to be $49,785, yet nearly doubled to $91,880 due to unforeseen issues and weekend/off hours charges.
  • In the end, the county spent at least $120,000 on a five-acre property that was to be sold “as is”—under the actual contract with developer, Caves Valley Partners (CVP).

Taxpayer-funded work or monies that would allow developers to push projects forward have also become a contentious issue with recent disclosures that Kamenetz has proposed giving $43 million in grants and support to the nearby Towson Row Project, which is also being pursued by Caves Valley Partners and another developer, The Baltimore Sun reported last week.

A recent review of records released under the MPIA details efforts to assist Caves Valley Partners with its Towson Gateway project, and point to a trend in which the county government has bent over backwards for the developer.

A “Small” Issue:
Although the records released are a range of documents–from emails between county officials to slips detailing the amount of debris hauled away from the site—there was one thing missing: There was not a single piece of paper showing who authorized the work, nor a justification for how the money could be spent.

Despite questions raised by this new information, county officials continued a months-long standoff last week, refusing all interview requests about the Towson Gateway project.

Ellen Kobler, the county’s deputy communications director, cut off a Baltimore Post reporter’s questions, saying, “You’re still working on this issue?  It is unusual for a reporter to work on something so small, for so long.”

A short while later, Don Mohler, Kamenetz’ chief of staff, echoed Kobler’s statement when he confronted the reporter in a hallway, telling her, “We have already talked to The Baltimore Sun about this extensively, about the trees and all of that.  We have no additional comment.”

When asked if Fred Homan, the county administrator, misappropriated funds in order to pay for work done at the Towson Gateway site, Mohler said “I have no opinion about that.”

In 2012, the county put up for sale the Towson Fire Station and Public Works Facility.  The 800 York Road property received five bids.

Despite community opposition, in December 2013, the Baltimore County Council at the time unanimously approved the $8.3 million sale of the Towson fire station and public works site to CVP.  Former councilmen Todd Huff (District 3), Kenneth Oliver (District 4), John Olszewski Sr. (District 7) , and current council members Tom Quirk (District 1), Vicki Almond (District 2), David Marks (District 5), and Kathy Bevins (District 6) voted for the CVP contract of sale.

Hundreds of Towson residents opposed developer, Caves Valley Partners’ proposed Royal Farms gas station which was incompatible with zoning at the time.  However, a change to the property’s zoning was unanimously approved by the Baltimore County Council through a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application. Included in the language of a PUD resolution was the protection of trees on the property.

Homan violated a legislative resolution when he ordered the trees removed.  The county administrator, who last month admitted to The Baltimore Post through county attorney, Michael Field that he gave the orders to remove the trees, used county maintenance funds to pay for the job. Although records show the developer had taken steps to remove the trees one year before, Homan ordered the county to do it in April, using funds allocated for the county’s grass mowing, ball diamond grooming, turf management, and general landscaping.

Homan said at an April 3 meeting that county removed the trees, two days before, in an effort to “accelerate the settlement to the developer.”

Last week, Kamenetz’ chief of staff supported that sentiment, telling a Baltimore Post reporter “we used those funds to prepare the site.”

The use of county funds to remove 30 trees for a buyer’s development project is in conflict with the funding source used to pay for it.

Since September, The Baltimore Post has issued several open records requests to the county which revealed an unknown contract extension signed over the summer between CVP and the county, a Forest Conservation Plan that Homan said did not exist, and CVP’s attempt to remove trees from the property, one year before Homan’s order.

The Kamenetz administration’s insistence that the Towson Gateway story is “small” and of little interest despite new information, is in marked contrast to the growing public furor.

Councilman Wade Kach sent out a press release last month asking for an audit.  He called the handling of the Towson Gateway project by the county administration “deplorable.”  At the same time, the Department of Natural Resources is currently investigating possible forest conservation violations; and David Plymyer, a former Anne Arundel County attorney, is calling for the state prosecutor’s office to investigate.

Caves Valley Partners, its affiliate companies and executives have contributed at least $130,000 to all seven council members, a slate campaign, and the county executive’s campaign since 2009.  When considering council members defeated in the last election, the number rises to almost $147,000.  (Royal Farms, the proposed anchor tenant for the Towson Gateway project, donated almost $30,000 during that time).

In a related story, state prosecutors were asked in October by Maryland’s State Board of Elections (SBE) to investigate CVP’s campaign contributions for possible over-contributions to politicians statewide as well as contributions made while a holder of a video gaming license.  (A 2012 Maryland law, enacted in 2015, prohibits the latter. The SBE recommended the investigation and possible enforcement action.)

The Towson Gateway issue has also recently hit the front page of The Baltimore Sun and has been written about extensively by the Towson Flyer. (There’s clearly interest. Related article views at The Baltimore Post are soaring past 30,000.)

Records Reveal:
The latest batch of records the county was forced to release paint a picture of a county administration rushing to prepare the Towson Gateway site outside of public-oriented procedure, just days before a mandatory Concept Plan Conference meeting that would be attended by government officials and community members.

Nearly one month before that April 4th meeting, the Office of Permits, Approvals and Inspections released a statement explaining the purpose of the meeting which stated that a “concept plan” could be “debated by county officials and interested citizens.”

But a story of an orderly process – promoted publicly by county officials in late March- was at odds with what had been going on behind the scenes earlier in the month.

Concept Plan:
One of the records released included comments about the Concept Plan by the Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability.  The comments, which were to be discussed at the April 4th meeting, made it clear that in order for the Towson Gateway development project to move to the development phase, the Baltimore County Forest Conservation Law requirements would have to be satisfied.

In particular, specimen trees on the property would have to be inventoried and tagged for removal or sparing.  Because CVP’s plan had already made clear it needed the trees removed to make way for its planned gas station, this would be a problem.

Without the trees, however, the impediment to the project was effectively lifted.  No trees, no impediment.

Emails:
The newly released records show that the race to demolish the old firehouse academy and remove 30 trees began less than one month before.

On March 2, 2017, Mike Goodyear, a project manager with the county, announced through an email to other county officials: “Have a new project for you.”

The Goodyear email came 19 days before the public would be told that there would be a Concept Plan meeting in April. Yet that April 4th meeting would not be set until plans to demolish the building and remove the trees were arranged.

On March 3, the records show the county bureaucracy started humming. Keys for the building had to be located. An order went out to find out if there would be a problem with hazardous materials. A few days later, a request for demolition bids would go out.

Then on March 15, a county employee sent through email a “tree removal map” to other county employees, in preparation for the hurried tree removal.

Finally on March 17th, with all the demolition bids in hand, Goodyear told a subordinate in an email “we would like to get the building down by 3/31.”

On the same day, an email from a county property manager, Debra Shindle, asked if the tree cutting service would also be able to do its work on March 31.

On March 21, the county received news that Excel Tree Experts submitted a proposal to remove 30 trees with “all work to be done in the evening hours of March 31 and weekend hours of April 1st.”  (The trees would be removed on April 1.)

But it was only after that final piece was in place that the county set the date for the April 4th concept plan meeting to discuss the “concept plan” for a property site that the county was planning to dramatically change in ten days.

However, the March 31 demolition date was problematic for the county. It was a Friday and the work would take more than one day.

In an email dated March 27, Barry Devore, a representative for the demolition company, explained the county’s solution. “(Goodyear) asked us to work Saturday and Sunday on demo and removal. He informed me that Balt. Co. would incur the extra cost.”

Goodyear told Devore that the intent was to have the “building down within the building footprint before the weekend closes.”  The winning bid for demolition: $49,785.  The actual cost to demolish the building: $91,880.  The cost to remove the trees: $29,052.01. Total cost to the county: $120,932.

Yet, as new information reveals the extent to which the county has assisted CVP’s private development project, county officials have chosen not to comment.  For nearly three months, department heads and other officials have remained silent, refusing to take calls or answer emails, sometimes agreeing to an interview and then backing out.

Both Kamenetz and Homan have ignored repeated requests for comment on the Towson Gateway issue.  Kobler said in an email that the communications department would not be commenting any further on Towson Gateway.

 

 

This article has been updated to include names of council members at the time of the December 2, 2013 unanimous vote for the sale of the Towson Gateway property to CVP.

annc@thebaltimorepost.com