Contract extension for Towson 'gateway' property sparks council criticism

Some Baltimore County Council members are criticizing the Kamenetz administration’s decision to give a developer five more years to complete development plans for a prime property in Towson, with one councilman calling for an audit of the process.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s administration signed an agreement with Caves Valley Partners to extend the sales contract for an old county fire station site at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue.

Caves Valley struck the initial deal with the county in 2013 to buy the 4.3-acre property, considered by many to be a “gateway” for downtown Towson, for $8.3 million. The contract settlement period was due to expire at the end of 2018 if Caves Valley didn’t win approval for its proposal of a commercial center at the site.

County Administrative Officer Fred Homan and Caves Valley executive Arthur Adler signed the five-year extension in July without telling the council or the public, at the same time County Council members were wrestling with initial development plans that called for a Royal Farms convenience store and gas station.

That proposal ran into fierce community opposition, and over the summer Kamenetz directed Council Chairman Tom Quirk to broker a deal with Caves Valley for a new plan. Those talks are continuing.

The extension essentially gives Caves Valley five additional years to solidify a development plan and navigate the county’s review process. While the extension did not require council approval, Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, said he was disappointed that neither the council nor the public was notified.

“The County Council deserved to know what was being done,” he said.

And Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, said he thinks an audit is necessary to determine whether the administration has acted appropriately on the land sale.

“We need to know what’s happened and make sure that everything that happened is within the law,” Kach said.

Kamenetz defended the contract extension.

“The developer asked for an extension, as they were entitled to, and frankly it was a reasonable request,” said Kamenetz, a Democrat who is running for governor.

Adler, the Caves Valley executive, did not respond to requests for comment.

Kach says the original deal was a bad one, and if the contract had expired in 2018, the county could have started over and sought new bidders for the property. Now Caves Valley has until 2023 to “get its ducks in a row” and finalize the sale, he said.

“That door is shut for five more years,” Kach said.

Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said he trusts that there is a “logical explanation” for the contract extension. He said the Kamenetz administration has, over the years, responded to his queries about the project and the sale.

“By and large we’ve had enough information,” Jones said. “Whenever I ask for something, they are forthright and tell me what I need to know.”

Marks had initially offered support for Caves Valley’s plans to build the commercial center and Royal Farms on the property.

He and the council voted in 2016 to allow Caves Valley to enter the county’s planned-unit development process, which grants zoning flexibility in exchange for a benefit to the community. The move was necessary because otherwise a gas station would not have been allowed on the property under current zoning.

But after the county cut down dozens of trees on the site this spring and community opposition mounted, Marks attempted to revise the council’s endorsement so that gas pumps would no longer be allowed. That proposal was ultimately defeated.

Kamenetz said the attempt to forbid the gas pumps would have served to “pull the rug” from under both the county and Caves Valley. The county executive noted that a gas station was part of the plan when the County Council approved the sale contract four years ago.

Marks noted that “at the very same time the council was considering this planned-unit development, the county executive’s office was signing off on a five-year extension.”

He called the process for the extension “not in keeping with the spirit of communication and collaboration that Baltimore County should be demonstrating.”

The contract extension was first reported by a local blog, the Baltimore Post.

West Towson resident Ron Council has been leading community efforts to negotiate with Caves Valley on a new development plan that doesn’t include a gas station. He said residents were “frustrated by the lack of transparency” regarding the contract extension.

Still, he believes Caves Valley is close to offering a new plan that will be more amenable to residents who expressed concerns about traffic, light and noise from a gas station.

Quirk, who has led the talks between Caves Valley and neighbors, said discussions are going well. He declined to offer any details of the negotiations.

“I feel pretty confident that we are pretty close to a mutually agreeable solution between the community and Caves,” said Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat.

If negotiations are successful, Quirk said, he “absolutely” expects Caves Valley to also seek a revised purchase price for the property. Any change to the price would need to be approved by the County Council.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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