By Kris Henry, The Towson Flyer In a huge blow to community activists who had…
Back in 2012, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced he was selling off three parcels of county-owned land largely for the purpose of raising money to provide air conditioning for public schools. One of those properties was the Towson fire station at York Road and Bosley Avenue.
The subsequent battle over what will happen to that property comes to a head Monday evening, Aug. 7, as the County Council is poised to vote on whether to allow a controversial Royal Farms gas station to be built at the site.
“The goal here is to fund additional money for additional school renovation projects without raising taxes. … And by selling the three different property sites or at least offering them up for sale, we can put those properties back on the property tax rolls generating property taxes and create new jobs based on the businesses that would occupy those sites,” Kamenetz told WBAL radio in December 2012.
“We can replace these older building for free and then we can take the additional profits and plow them back into school-renovation projects — primarily air conditioning and technology projects,” Kamenetz said in the interview.
“… In the central corridor we’re talking about replacing a fire station that was built in 1958 and we need to modernize that. We previously had funding in place for that but we pulled that so we could promote additions at other area elementary schools,” Kamenetz said. “So the goal here is to put that property up for sale and if we generate the right price, we can get a brand-new fire station on another county-owned parcel of land and additional profits to hopefully air condition Dumbarton Middle School.”
But as it stands, it is not clear the county or taxpayers will come out ahead on this transaction.
Developer Caves Valley Partners has offered to pay $8.3 million for the site. The new fire station cost $7.6 million, and it is not clear if that includes the more than $800,000 the county spent to buy a home adjacent to the site.
It also does not appear to include the cost of remediation of an underground oil tank on the old fire-station site, or the cost to move the non-fire related functions that are on the site. (The property is also home to a salt dome — used to salt the roads during ice storms — and a storage unit housing highway-maintenance vehicles that would need to be relocated.)
There is also the value of the land on which the new fire house sits, on the outskirts of downtown Towson at Bosley Avenue and Towsontown Boulevard. Some estimate that the county could have sold that land for several million dollars.
Critics of the Royal Farms project note the above cost issues, and also have three main critiques of the gas station itself.
One is that it doesn’t meet the design guidelines of the Towson overlay district in which it would sit. Those guidelines call for pedestrian-friendly designs that encourage a walkable Towson. Critics say a gas station that is located behind a tall wall is the antithesis of a walkable design.
A second is that the area has plenty of gas stations and that adding another — especially one that is open 24/7 — is unnecessary and would be detrimental to the quality of life of nearby residents.
The third main complaint is that a gas station would bring in far less tax revenue than would another type of development. That’s because property taxes are based not on revenue, but on a building’s square footage: A gas station’s building is small, even though its overall footprint is large.
Tax revenue from the Royal Farms is projected to be $26,000 annually. Another project that had been proposed for the site — a Harris Teeter grocery store with apartments above it — would have brought in more than $550,000 in annual revenue, according to projections.
The issue of revenue was highlighted at a County Council work session last week by Brenda Bodian, a Towson resident who works in the commercial real-estate industry. She urged councilmembers to keep tax revenues in mind when voting on the Royal Farms.
“If the County could negotiate a plan with more density on part of the site, that would honor the Master Plan for Towson, allow for more open space, and generate more tax revenue than a low-density use on the whole site,” she said in an email after her testimony.
“For example, a higher-density use like apartments, office, or hotel on just half of the acreage could generate five to seven times more real estate taxes for the County than a low-density use on all the land. This projection was made based on 2017 tax assessments for high- and low-density properties in the Towson core and along York Road to a little over a mile north of the site.”
The Royal Farms project is different than most commercial real estate deals in the county because in this case, a developer wants to put a gas station in an area in which zoning does not allow a gas station. To get around zoning laws, a developer can utilize a Planned Unit Development, or PUD.
PUDs must provide a community benefit — although the law does not specify that the project itself must provide a benefit; instead, a developer can offer other unrelated “benefits” to the community. In this case, Caves Valley said it would donate $50,000 for trail improvements, some tree plantings and two speed signs for Towson neighborhoods. (The county council recently voted down legislation to allow the speed signs on Stevenson Lane in Rodgers Forge and Stoneleigh, where they were to be located.)
In December 2016, Councilman David Marks introduced a bill to start the review of the PUD. He did so despite strong opposition from the community, and he said he was doing so in part because the Kamenetz administration had threatened to withhold funds from his district if he did not support the PUD — something Kamenetz’ office denied.
But during the review period, the county chopped down 30 mature trees on the site, which was in direct violation of Marks’ resolution to review the PUD. The county said it cleared the trees to “accelerate” the sale of the property. Caves Valley has declined to say whether it was involved in the removal of the trees.
Marks brought up the tree removal at last week’s Council work session.
“Why does this [tree removal] matter? Well, it matters for two reasons,” he said.
“First, it is a clear violation of the Council’s legislative intent. If the Council is going to pass laws or resolutions that are going to be ignored, then why are we even here? Why is there a legislative branch? Does our opinion matter? And if a statute can be ignored in this case, then will it continue to be ignored in future issues?,” Marks said.
“But second, there is the practical reality of what this has done to the review process for a Planned Unit Development. The county has now created a deficiency that will be exploited by opponents of this project. It has further weakened the likelihood that this project will be approved at any point in the near future,” Marks said.
The above video shows the testimony of Towson resident Amy Rehkemper — an opponent of the gas station — followed by testimony from Christopher Mudd, an attorney for Caves Valley. Mudd indicated Caves Valley would sue the county if the project was killed.
“Councilman Marks is essentially asking you to undo your prior votes and to vote to undermine the contract in a prior resolution,” Mudd said. “That vote could put the county at risk of legal action on the existing, valid contract that the council approved.”
Marks then asked Mudd for his opinion on whether the county was allowed to stop a project during the review period.
Marks: “You will concede that the law basically says that the council initiates a review of the project and that today is appropriate under the current law?”
Mudd: “Pardon me?”
Marks: “The law says that the county council initiates a review of a Planned Unit Development and today’s proceedings are consistent with the law, right?”
Mudd: “It does initiate a review of the Planned Unit Development, I’m not sure of the second question you’re asking.”
Marks: “In other words, what we’re doing today is totally consistent with the law, as it says that we can pull — we can stop a review of any element of a Planned Unit Development.”
Mudd: “The law does permit the council to bring a resolution back in a proceeding.”
In all, 19 people spoke about the Royal Farms at the work session; two in favor and 17 against.
So far, only Councilman Wade Kach has said publicly how he will vote on Monday; he is supporting Marks’ resolution to kill the PUD.
Kach said he was doing so because of “the strong and outspoken opposition of the West Towson community that would have to live with this gas station on their doorstep,” and because he was “outraged by the wanton violation of the PUD when the county cut down dozens of specimen trees needlessly last spring,” and because he believes in “the long standing tradition of councilmatic courtesy. When a project or piece of legislation impacts only one district, it is often the case that councilmembers will vote with the councilmember whose district is singularly impacted. This legislation is a clear cut case of councilmatic courtesy.”
Caves Valley officials have not responded to requests for comment.
Both opponents of the Royal Farms as well as Caves Valley representatives have indicated they will file a lawsuit if the vote Monday does not go their way.
The Council will vote on the PUD at its Aug. 7 meeting, which begins at 6:00 PM and can be watched live online.
The Towson Flyer