Towson Royal Farms dispute far from resolved, residents say

The head of a group that represents dozens of community associations in the Towson area said this week that the group might take its fight to stop construction of a Royal Farms gas station proposed for the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue to court, if necessary.

"We would prefer to not have to do that," said Bryan Fischer, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, adding that he presumes that the developer of the project, the Towson-based Cave Valley Partners, would rather avoid a legal battle. "But it's certainly not something we're going to rule out."

Fischer and others who have a stake in the project's future spoke this week in the wake of the County Council's Aug. 7 party-line vote to quash a resolution by Republican Councilman David Marks that, had the council approved it, likely would have killed the project.

In voting to table Marks's measure, the council's Democrats said they hope to convince Caves Valley officials to come up with a new plan for the parcel. The council voted 4-3 to table the resolution, with the four Democrats voting to set the resolution aside and the body's three Republicans voting to approve it.

Caves Valley has a contract to purchase the 5.8-acre former fire station property from the county for $8.3 million, contingent on meeting guidelines set in the county's development review process. The developer's plan for the parcel proposes two strips of commercial retail centered around a Royal Farms gas station and convenience store.

Community opposition to the project has been brewing since Baltimore County agreed to sell the property in 2013.

In December, the council approved a measure introduced by Marks, called a planned unit development, or PUD, that allows the developer to build gas pumps on the parcel, which are not allowed under the parcel's zoning, in exchange for providing a community benefit.

Last month, Marks, who represents Towson, introduced legislation to revise the PUD to remove the gas pumps from the approved use for the project — the measure the council tabled Aug. 7. Marks said he introduced the revision in part because county officials cut down 30 trees on the parcel this spring, an act Marks said was prohibited under the council's previous endorsement of the project.

The Aug. 7 vote elicited an immediate response from some of the dozens of Towson residents who attended the meeting hoping to see the council approve Marks's resolution and sink the project. Some marched from the council chamber booing, while one woman shouted to councilmembers, "You're a major disappointment! All of you!"

Council Chairman Tom Quirk, a Democrat who represents Catonsville, said at the Aug. 7 meeting that he engineered the move after weeks of discussions with officials of Caves Valley and Royal Farms and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

Quirk did not return numerous requests for additional comment.

In votes such as the one the council took Aug. 7, council members traditionally defer to the wishes of the councilmember in whose district a project resides, under a practice known as councilmanic courtesy. The Aug. 7 vote undermines that courtesy, however, and opens the county to litigation from community groups who oppose the project, Marks said.

"In blocking my resolution last night, the Democratic majority sent a clear message that the County Executive can ignore the Council, and developers can bully the community and publicly smear members of the legislative branch, with no repercussions whatsoever," Marks stated in an Aug. 8 email.

The GTCCA's Fischer said this week that the PUD process "is not supposed to be a rubber stamp for what a developer wants to do. It is a proposal. They are asking to do a certain thing that's not permitted by zoning, the County Council says, 'OK. This looks all right,' but now we have to get the community to buy in."

Caves Valley did not negotiate revisions to the property in good faith, Fischer said, adding that the umbrella community group would like to be consulted on future revisions or plans.

Other residents praised the council's Aug. 7 vote.

Towson Chamber of Commerce President Tim Bojanowski said he believes those opposed to the Royal Farms project are a vocal minority.

"It seems that the prevailing narrative on the issue is that there is consensus in vehement opposition to the project and that simply isn't true," Bojanowski said. "I've received a great deal of feedback from people suggesting it seems we've lost sight of how fortunate we are that people are investing and building in Towson, especially in areas that have been ignored for years."

"I think most people can understand why neighbors have voiced concern about the project — and I would personally agree that communication from government and the developer has been poor," he added. "However, that doesn't make it a bad development and it certainly doesn't justify breaking a legal contract and subjecting the rest of the taxpayers in Baltimore County to picking up the tab."

Having the council renege on a project that it had already approved would have been a negative for the community and the council, said Katie Pinheiro, the executive director of the Greater Towson Committee, which advocates for the revitalization of Towson's core downtown.

"It's a good sign that the council is not going to push aside a strong development based on one side's views," Pinheiro said.

At the Aug. 7 council meeting, Steve Sibel, a partner with Caves Valley, criticized Marks for wanting to revisit the council's earlier support of the project and said Marks had refused to meet with officials of his company in recent months, an assertion Marks disputed.

"We do stand ready to engage with the chairman, the other council members and the county executive to see if a solution can be reached that can reasonably satisfy all parties," Sibel said at the meeting.

An attorney for Caves Valley Partners did not return requests for additional comment.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pam Wood contributed to this story.

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