By Kris Henry,
The Towson Flyer
In a huge blow to community activists who had fought the project, the Baltimore County Council on Monday voted to table legislation from Councilman David Marks that would have stopped development of a large gas station at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue.
The vote clears the way for developer Caves Valley Partners to move forward with the process of building a 24-hour Royal Farms at the site.
“Over the weekend I’ve had extensive conversations with Caves Valley Partners, with Royal Farms, with the County Executive’s office, and all parties over the weekend have agreed to re-look at this agreement, re-look at the negotiation — re-look at the possibility of even eliminating the gas stations,” Council President Tom Quirk, a Democrat, said.
“I want to stress this very much — all parties are looking for a win-win solution for the community, a win-win solution for Royal Farms, a win-win solution for Caves Valley. And so with that new information, I’m moving to table [Marks’ resolution to stop the gas station],” Quirk said.
Democrats Vicki Almond, Cathy Bevins and Julian Jones joined with Quirk to table Marks’ bill to halt the gas station. Republicans Wade Kach and Todd Crandell voted with Marks, who is also a Republican.
Opponents of the project immediately left the chambers, with a few shouting “Do your job!” and “You’re corrupt!”
A gas station is not allowed by the area’s zoning, so developer Caves Valley Partners applied for a PUD (Planned Unit Development) to avoid having to comply with the zoning. Despite strong opposition from adjacent neighborhoods, in December 2016 Marks approved moving the PUD forward for review.
“This vote means the majority of the County Council is run by developers — it’s a culture that is incredibly disturbing,” state Sen. Jim Brochin, who is expected to run for County Executive in the next election, said in an interview after the meeting. “Developers feel like they can do whatever they want because they’ve bought out a majority of the council. It’s enough. It’s foul.”
As part of the normal review process, the PUD will eventually go before an administrative law judge.
“The developer still has to prove, per the PUD process, that what they plan to develop is of substantially higher quality than what otherwise could have been achieved without the PUD,” said Ron Council, one of the residents fighting the Royal Farms.
“This property is not zoned for a gas station, so they have to go in and prove that by putting a gas station there, they’re putting in a development of substantially higher quality,” he said.
As Quirk indicated, there is a chance that there will be an agreement to eliminate the gas-station portion of the project, which would also include several retail store and a restaurant.
“Any time that there is an opportunity for negotiation or compromise, we have to see it through — and that’s what this and we have to see it through,” Almond said after the vote.
The site, formerly home to a fire station, also had interest from Harris Teeter and Whole Foods, though neither of those projects made it through the initial stages.
In a move that drew harsh rebuke from many residents and local officials, the county had 30 trees removed from the site in April with no advance notice, even though the Royal Farms project had not been approved and the site’s future use was not secured. In May, an attorney for the developer, Caves Valley Partners, said that an additional three dozen trees separating the site from the Immaculate Conception fields.
“A majority of the Council has sent a message that the County Executive can ignore our directives with no consequences, and that the wishes of one developer trump overwhelming opposition from the community,” Marks said in a statement after Monday’s vote. “This issue is not dead. It will continue through the next year, and I will do all in my power to help the community defeat this project.”
Marks also said in an interview after the vote that Caves Valley made it clear to him many times that it was the gas-station component that was the revenue driver.
“I would be surprised if [Caves Valley] agreed to remove this from the PUD,” Marks said.
Steve Sibel, a partner at Caves Valley, spoke to the council after the vote and thanked them for voting against a resolution that he said Marks was using “for personal political gain.” When he was challenged on some statements by Marks, Sibel responded: “That’s a very fine fairy tale you’ve spun there, Councilman.” (See video below.)
“When thinking of Steve Sibel’s remarks, two words come to mind: no class,” Marks said later. “He is the schoolyard bully who kicks someone when they are down. Caves Valley Partners has earned every bit of its reputation among many of my constituents.”
In June, Marks said he was withdrawing support for the Royal Farms because of:
“Lack of Public Support. The original Planned Unit Development legislation, sponsored by then-County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, emphasizes public input and collaboration. An overwhelming number of residents do not want this project to be built. How can its advocates claim with any credibility that this project meets a minimum of community support?
Violation of Council Resolution 113-16. Earlier this spring, the executive branch of government removed approximately 30 mature trees, with no public notice and in violation of clear direction from the County Council. The removal of the trees eliminated a major hurdle for the developer, whose attorney later said that even more trees will be destroyed should the project be approved.
Delayed Improvements to Bosley Avenue. The driving conditions on Bosley Avenue are a nightmare, yet when I asked the Deputy County Administrative Officer about plans to resurface the corridor, his response was that improvements would occur after Towson Station was finished. Given the likelihood of appeals, this means that Bosley Avenue will continue to deteriorate for at least two or three years.
Our transportation network is key to redevelopment in Downtown Towson. The continued collapse of Bosley Avenue will be a drag on all future growth—as well as the quality of life of established businesses and neighborhoods.
Long-Term Litigation. The contract of sale for this property requires approval of the Planned Unit Development by next year. That is highly unlikely. Towson Station is a lower-quality, and more controversial, project than other Planned Unit Developments that have been proposed in Towson. This project will be fought long and hard. Neighborhood associations should not have to exhaust tens of thousands of dollars opposing this project, and Baltimore County should not have to deal with the uncertainty of waiting years to receive profits from the sale of this land.
The County Executive was right in 2013 when he argued that the county property at York Road and Bosley Avenue was not being utilized for its highest and best use. But he was also right when, as a Councilman, he proposed the Planned Unit Development law that encourages high-quality developments with broad public support.
It is time to turn the page on the Royal Farms gasoline station.”
In June, Councilwoman Almond said she was undecided on how she would vote on the issue. While the project is not in her district, she does represent a large portion of Towson. She is also expected to run for County Executive in the next election. (State Sen. Jim Brochin, who is also expected to run for County Executive, said he was strongly opposed to the Royal Farms project.)
“Based on how many times Councilman Marks has changed his mind on this project,” Almond said in June, “I am waiting until August to see what the Council will actually be voting on.”
Marks said Monday night that he doesn’t feel that introducing the PUD in the first place was an error.
“I firmly believe that if the review of the PUD had not started, then Towson would not have received money in the budget for things like water improvement in Campus Hills and flooding remediation in Stoneleigh,” Marks said, referencing what he had earlier said were threats by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’ office to slash monies in Towson if the PUD didn’t move forward.
“The county executive holds all the cards,” Marks said. “And I don’t feel like I made a mistake; the four Democrats on the council are the ones who made the mistake.”