On Tuesday, Baltimore County held a concept-plan meeting for the proposed Royal Farms at York Road and Bosley Avenue at which it said that a special variance would be needed before any trees could be cut down at the site.
The problem? Three days earlier, the county itself had already chopped down all the trees.
At the Tuesday meeting about the proposed gas station, a representative from the county’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability read comments from the Environmental Impact Review Office that said in part:
“Removal of any specimen tree requires that that a special variance to the forest conservation law be granted by the Director of the Depart Environmental Protection and Sustainability. Prior to development plan approval, the plan must be revised or amended to reflect these variance decisions. Finally, [the developer] must add a note to this development plan how this plan will satisfy the Baltimore County forest conservation law.”
When asked afterward if he was aware of the plan to remove the trees, he said he was not.
“Clearly, the administration [of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz] anticipated that there would be opposition to removing the trees, and that the specimen tree removal would require the developer to obtain the special variances that are required by the Forest Conservation Act,” said Joshua Glikin, a West Towson resident who was at the meeting.
“Ripping out the trees made that problem go away,” Glikin said. “Ask yourself who ultimately benefits from this act. It certainly isn’t the county. And then ask yourself why, if the county did nothing wrong, wasn’t anyone notified ahead of time?”
The county’s removal of 30 trees — including seven “specimen” trees (larger, mature trees) — has outraged nearby residents and environmentalists. They note that the Royal Farms project — which they also vehemently oppose — has not been formally approved yet and that the tree removal was unnecessary and premature.
Sen. Jim Brochin, who is planning to run for county executive, said he was “disgusted” by the trees’ removal.
When the state Department of Natural Resources was asked whether the county needed to follow the same guidelines as a developer — or whether it was free to chop down trees on its property without a variance or permission — a spokesman replied:
“The county issues permits for these projects, and conducts reviews for forest conservation and other codes. The Forest Conservation Act is implemented on a local level.” Further clarification was not immediately available.
In December the county council passed a resolution protecting the trees at the fire station site. It said, in part, that county planners needed to ensure “that the landscaping design for the project includes the use of lush plantings, and that the landscape design at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue includes the use of attractive ‘Towson’ stone retaining walls accented by decorative black fencing and that existing mature trees that surround the site are protected.”
Back in 2012, Kamenetz announced that the fire station at York and Bosley would be shuttered and the land sold. He planned to locate a new fire station at the site of Towson Manor Park near the library, but that idea was met with huge resistance from people who said Towson already had a paucity of green space and couldn’t afford to lose more. Instead, the county decided to locate the station at Bosley and Towsontown Boulevard, where it now sits.
Now, Kamenetz’ administration says it needs the money from the sale of the old fire station land in order to pay for the new station. Caves Valley Partners has offered $8 million for the property.
At a council meeting Monday — two days after the trees had been cleared — there was a testy exchange between Councilman David Marks, who submitted the plan for the Royal Farms, and Fred Homan, the chief administrative officer for the Kamenetz administration. Marks said he was upset that neither he nor anyone else had been notified that the trees were to be taken down.
“As you know, the county has followed the law in every step of the way here,” Homan replied. “The county built a new fire station, very much in accordance with what the community asked for, and now needs to get the settlement on that property so the county can receive the $8 million sale price.”
Marks replied: “Well, I can read the law, too. And the resolution we passed in December said the following: ‘The council required additional review for the project, the project will be reviewed by the County Design Review Panel and existing mature trees that surround the site are protected to the greatest extent possible.’ That was in the resolution we passed.”
Homan: “That has nothing directly to do with the fact that the county owns the properties, sir. That would be at the point that the property would transfer.”
Marks: “Well let me ask you this — ”
Homan: “And quite frankly, the county is currently moving to accelerate the settlement on the property so the county can receive the $8 million that it’s currently had to forward finance through the sale of debt. That keeps the revenue as a receivable, which does not help. The county needs the cash from the sale of the property. So the county is trying to accelerate the close of the property. That’s what going on at this point in time.”
That response did not sit well with opponents of the plan.
“It was clear from his responses to Councilman Marks that Mr. Homan cared only about the money the county would receive for the land and not about the surrounding neighborhoods,” said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, an education and environmental advocate in the county. “For Mr. Homan to justify cutting down trees on that property to prepare it in order to pay for a fire station — what kind of financial position has he created in our county requiring that we would have to cut down large trees in an urban setting to pay for anything?”
The Green Towson Alliance urged Marks to cancel consideration of the Royal Farms proposal, known as a “planned unit development,” or PUD.
“When there are rules protecting our environment, if there are no consequences to breaking the rules, then they will continue to be broken,” said Wendy Jacobs of the Alliance. “In addition to legal consequences for this, the political consequence should be used, which is the council should cancel this PUD as soon as possible.”
The Greater Towson Council of Community Associations (GTCCA) also criticized the tree removal and urged Marks to pull the PUD.
“GTCCA stands firm in its belief in sensitive, well planned smart growth in Towson. Such growth will enhance the quality of life for existing residents as well as newcomers. Slash and burn development conducted without any regard to public input runs contrary to the principles of open government and sound development,” the group said in a statement.
“GTCCA urges Councilman Marks to retract his support of the insensitive development planned for this site so that community input may guide future plans. Further, GTCCA expects a full explanation for the destruction of tree canopy in Towson as well as a comprehensive plan from County Government to preserve and expand tree canopy and green space. In an era when national government is abrogating its role in environmental protection, we fully expect County Government to take the lead in this important issue rather than become the source of despoiling our air and water quality,” the statement said.
Marks did not say whether he was considering pulling support for the PUD.
“I am aware of the statement from the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, which very strangely does not mention the words ‘Kevin Kamenetz’ even though his office authorized the destruction of the trees in violation of the County Council’s directive,” Marks said in an email. “A resolution cannot legally be pulled until after the next Community Input Meeting.”
He noted that in response to the trees being felled, he will introduce two pieces of legislation at the next county council meeting.
“The first creates a moratorium on cutting mature trees on county-owned land in Downtown Towson and nearby neighborhoods,” he said. “The second tasks our Commission on Environmental Quality with developing regulations by June 1 to regulate tree cutting.”
–Kristine Henry, Towson Flyer