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Administrative law judge backs Whalen's Catonsville medical office proposal

A Baltimore County administrative law judge has approved developer Steve Whalen's proposal for a medical office project in Catonsville, one month after Whalen pleaded guilty to giving illegal campaign contributions to county politicians.

Judge John E. Beverungen said the proposed Southwest Physicians Pavilion, planned for Kenwood Avenue near the Beltway, meets the county's zoning laws and complies with its master plan.

In January, Whalen pleaded guilty to five counts of violating state election law, admitting he funneled $7,500 to the campaign of County Councilman Tom Quirk — who represents the Catonsville area — by giving money to others to give to Quirk. He also acknowledged exceeding the $10,000 limit a political donor can give to candidates in an election cycle by contributing $4,000 to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and $250 to Councilman David Marks, in addition to the money given to Quirk. He was fined $53,000.

In his decision approving the proposal, Beverungen wrote last week that state prosecutors who had charged Whalen found no evidence of a "quid pro quo" with county officials. Prosecutors have said Quirk did not know that Whalen had channeled money to his campaign through "straw donors."

Beverungen said he did not believe that he has the authority to deny a project proposal based on a developer's illegal contributions.

"Practically speaking, even if such authority existed, if the State Prosecutor found no such 'quid pro quo' existed after a monthslong investigation, on what basis would I reach a different conclusion?" Beverungen wrote in his opinion.

"None of this means that what the Developer did was acceptable," he wrote, "and this case may be just another example of the sad state of affairs in campaign finance and politics."

The neighboring Kenwood Gardens Condominium Association has fought Whalen's proposal, saying the building would hurt property values and increase traffic and noise in the community. Association President Paul Black said he was frustrated with the judge's decision and with issues of money in politics.

"I'm disgusted with the whole damn county," Black said. "It's totally ridiculous."

Black pointed to emails between Whalen and Quirk — which were read at Whalen's hearing — that showed them corresponding about the project at the same time they were discussing Quirk's fundraising efforts.

The association's attorney had called for a mistrial after Whalen was charged with the election law violations in December. But Beverungen wrote in the decision that he does not believe he has the authority to call a mistrial as a hearing officer.

During hearings for the project, Beverungen heard testimony from county agency heads, residents and experts. Whalen is proposing to build an 89,110-square-foot, seven-story building. It would include four stories of medical offices over three levels of parking with 400 spaces.

Whalen, managing partner of Whalen Properties, said he was pleased with the decision. He called his project "an important one for Catonsville," saying it would bring good jobs to the area.

"I'm excited that we finally got to this step," Whalen said. "It's dragged out for a long time. …Some of that obviously was a screw-up of my own making, by shooting myself in the foot with the campaign contribution issue."

Whalen now will seek approval from county agencies for building plans and permits, which could take four to six months, he said.

The project is known as a "planned unit development," which gives developers flexibility on zoning rules if their project offers some benefit to the community.

Quirk said Monday he believes the project would bring investment and jobs to the community.

"I'm satisfied that the administrative law judge saw the Southwest Physicians Pavilion for the good quality project that it is, and pleased that it can move forward to provide tens of millions of dollars in investment and possibly hundreds of good jobs to the area," Quirk said.

Black said he did not know whether the Kenwood Gardens association would appeal the judge's decision. J. Carroll Holzer, the association's lawyer, was traveling and could not be reached Monday.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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