Towson residents and environmentalists are fighting a proposed 24-hour, 16-pump Royal Farms gas station at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue, the site of the old fire station.
At the same time, Councilman David Marks said he’s getting pressure from County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to push the proposal through, although the administration says that’s not accurate.
The gas station, whose developer is the local firm Caves Valley Partners, would sit at the edge of the new Towson overlay district. The district was created with the goal of having new development in downtown Towson meet standards for open space, preserve mature trees, and boost walkability.
Thanks to the county planning department adding language to the legislation that created the district, the Royal Farms project was grandfathered in, even though it doesn’t meet the new standards.
“This gigantic gas-station project is the worst possible use for this opportune location. The project flies in the face of the design principles that were put in place to make Towson greener, more walkable and more livable,” Beth Miller of the Green Towson Alliance said of the “Towson Gateway” project.
“On top of that, the tax revenue it would bring in is only a fraction of what the county could get from another type of development that would actually meet Towson’s improved guidelines,” she said. “Everything about this proposal is wrong except for the name. This is the northwest gateway to our city: Let’s get it right!”
In addition to the gas station, two buildings that would house retail and restaurants are also part of the proposal.
A county procurement panel had recommended several years ago that the land, which the county owns, be sold to developers who planned to put in a Harris Teeter grocery store. The developer ultimately could not get a commitment from the grocery chain so the project did not move forward.
The tax revenue from the Harris Teeter was projected to be more than $550,000 per year. The estimated annual tax revenue from the Royal Farms is just $26,000. That’s because property taxes are based on a building’s square footage, and a gas station’s building is small, even though its overall footprint is large.
Many are urging the county to reject the Royal Farms and instead find a different project for the site.
“Due to overwhelming community opposition to the [Royal Farms project], the GTA calls on the County Executive to ask [Caves Valley] to withdraw their bid and issue a new request for proposal. The former fire station is an important gateway into Downtown Towson from the north, but a 16 pump gas station, farm store and suburban style retail center is not the appropriate image, design or land use to achieve the attractive, walkable, livable and sustainable Towson described in the recently adopted Downtown Towson District Overlay,” the Green Towson Alliance said in a statement.
At a community-input meeting in April, many people voiced opposition to the gas station, calling it “appalling,” “not aesthetically pleasing,” and saying it would make traffic in the area worse. Full notes from the input meeting can be read here.
Because current zoning for the site does not allow gas pumps, Caves Valley must pursue the project through a Planned Unit Development (PUD) resolution. A PUD is basically a request submitted by a district’s councilperson that asks for permission to build a project that otherwise would not be allowed.
Marks said he’s heard from many constituents who do not want the gas station, but he said he’s also heard from the Kamenetz administration.
“Senior members of the administration have made it clear that at least $8 million will be cut from the Fifth District if the resolution is not introduced to review the Towson Gateway Planned Unit Development. The $8 million could affect road resurfacing, flood control in east Towson, and school projects miles away from the Towson Gateway site,” Marks said.
“The charter that was passed in the 1950s has given every county executive this type of power. It’s disheartening, but unfortunately, it’s reality. Any councilmember must decide when to oppose the County Executive, and when to cooperate with the County Executive — who ultimately funds projects and manages the government,” Marks said.
Don Mohler, chief of staff for Kamenetz, said the administration put no pressure on Marks and that it’s simply a fact that the county would have $8 million less in its coffers if the Royal Farms sale doesn’t go through, as that is the sale price of the property.
“The allegation of a threat is simply not true,” Mohler said. “A PUD is totally at the discretion of the council. In terms of the County Executive, he spent 16 years on the council and he does not weigh in or invade their turf.”
Marks said: “I will let the citizens of Towson decide for themselves if they thought it was a threat or not.”
State Sen. Jim Brochin called the Royal Farms project “an abomination” and urged Marks not to introduce the PUD despite any pressure he’s received.
“David needs to stop being the Cowardly Lion and develop some courage and do the right thing. That’s what the job is about,” Brochin said. “It’s insane that anyone could support this unless they’ve been influenced by campaign contributions.”
Marks said that as a county councilman, “I’m the one who has to deliver funding for important local projects. Sen. Brochin can take the popular position every time, with few repercussions. And with all due respect to the Senator’s insults, maybe he was in the Land of Oz when I was taking on developers and the Kamenetz administration during the last rezoning cycle.”
He said he plans to introduce the PUD resolution this Monday, which begins the review process. The PUD application can be read here.
“But I am talking to both the developers and groups like the Green Towson Alliance about what the resolution will say,” Marks said. “The Design Review Panel evaluates new construction in Downtown Towson. The recently passed Downtown Towson overlay legislation provides the metrics for how development is reviewed. The resolution could not require DRP review if the developer agrees to changes, or if could specify that the DRP follows the parameters of the overlay district legislation.”
Neither Caves Valley nor Royal Farms returned requests for interviews.
One of the features of the Royal Farms project that bothers detractors the most is the planned wall that will surround a portion of the property. They point to a similar wall at the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor Avenue and say it would be a hugely unattractive way to present the core of Towson.
“A 20-foot wall running hundreds of feet around the south end, with no trees for shade, could not be more discouraging for pedestrians,” said Wendy Jacobs of the Green Towson Alliance.
Jacobs, who lives in West Towson, ticked off the issues she sees with the project: “Perched way on top, a mega gas station-jumbo convenience store lit and open round-the-clock to beckon beltway trucks and rush hour traffic alike. Minimal property tax revenue. Complete impervious surfacing. Gas next to a school playing field contra to recent guidelines. The real risk of creating a brownfield across the street from one of the very close competing gas stations.”
“All of this tucked into the edge of the greenest part of Towson,” Jacobs said. “What on earth could the County be thinking?”
-Kris Henry, Towson Flyer