A collective gasp filled the room Monday evening when an attorney for the developer behind a Royal Farms at York Road and Bosley Avenue told a crowd of Towson residents that additional mature trees will be removed from the site.
Rona Kobell, a Southland Hills resident, had asked Venable attorney Christopher Mudd if he could promise that developer Caves Valley Partners would keep the 36 trees, which are more than 20 feet tall, that currently separate Immaculate Conception School playing fields from the proposed Royal Farms gas station.
“The proposal at this moment is to take all those trees down and put up a fence,” Mudd replied, to a wave of shouts from angry audience members.
“Cities all over the world are spending taxpayer money to plant trees for environmental, economic, and health benefits. Why in the world is this developer tearing them down? Why is the county environmental department supporting that while simultaneously proclaiming they’re about sustainability?” Kobell said after the meeting. “If you care about the environment, the most cost-effective thing you can do is keep the healthy trees in place. Shrubs won’t provide the benefits.”
The crowd at the community-input meeting was already incensed that Baltimore County ordered 30 trees to be cut down without notice last month.
“Why do you need to take down those [additional] trees? Why take them down and then put small trees behind the building?” asked Karen Kahl, the parent of two ICS students. “Rather than ask why, I’m going to insist that you don’t take them down and provide better protection for that field.”
As it turns out, the plan to remove the trees was approved by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, according to a May 2 letter to Caves Valley.
Kahl said she wishes the Archdiocese had taken a position “to support what’s in the best interest of our children’s health.”
About 200 people attended the input meeting, held at the Sheppard Pratt Conference Center, and many expressed huge frustration with the presenters because of their lack of answers.
“How does new gas station provide any benefit to the community?” asked one audience member, noting that county requirements state that this type of project must provide a community benefit.
Mudd replied that “All I can say is, this is the proposal we have. I’m not sure you’re going to get an answer from any of us.”
He also noted that county law allows a developer to provide a monetary contribution instead of presenting a project that itself is a benefit. The crowd roared in reply that they were only donating $50,000 for trails, some tree plantings and two speed signs for Towson neighborhoods. (Because zoning does not allow a gas station at the site, Caves Valley applied through a Planned Unit Development, or PUD, which allows exceptions to be made.)
The West Towson community, which would receive the bulk of the $50,000, is opposed to the Royal Farms.
One frustrated speaker after another asked questions, but minimal details were provided.
One person asked about an existing 10,000 gallon storage tank on the site that was not mentioned in the PUD application but that was discovered two years earlier in a developer-funded study.
“I guess maybe it wasn’t required, I don’t know,” Mudd said.
The same person also asked Caves Valley to share its Phase 1 report that details the condition of the underground tank.
“The report is not required to be submitted as part of the process,” Mudd said, “and we won’t be submitting it as part of the process.”
James Risser of Towson noted that the gas station would be adjacent to a school, a detention center and a church and that they could all be affected by the project.
“To not do an environmental risk assessment is unconscionable,” he said. “When are you doing it? And when can we review it?”
Mudd said any such study would have been done for internal planning and that “we are not making the reports available to you. At the hearing you can say the reasons you think it shouldn’t be approved.” (The PUD will be reviewed at a public hearing by an administrative law judge later in the process.)
Along with a Royal Farms, there would also be retail and restaurant space with outdoor seating. When asked what restaurants were going in, Mudd said they had signed leases but could not yet share any names. Mission BBQ has been rumored to be one of the tenants.
“This whole meeting is disingenuous if you already have leases,” said one audience member, while another asked who would want to eat outside while overlooking a gas station.
Near the end of the meeting, Southland Hills resident Jennifer Bolster told Caves Valley officials: “You need to start listening to us. We live here. We live here and we drive here, and we should have a say in this.”
Arthur Adler, a partner in Caves Valley, attended the meeting but did not speak to the audience. He also declined to answer any questions in the moments just before the meeting — including about the status of Towson Row, a Caves Valley project that has left a large vacant space in downtown Towson for more than a year.
Councilman David Marks, who represents downtown Towson and who approved the PUD for review, did not attend the meeting but said he sent a member of his staff instead.
“Under the separation of powers provision in the County Charter,” he said in an email, “Councilmembers do not attend community input meetings for development projects that are under the purview of the executive branch.”