Carrying "Tree-gate" and "We speak for the trees" signs, about 50 protesters gathered at the site of a planned Royal Farms gas station and convenience store in Towson Wednesday to condemn the cutting of trees on the county-owned property.
"This is unbelievable, unconscionable, unethical and probably criminal," West Towson resident Peggy King said of the removal of the trees.
For years, residents have contested plans for a gas station, proposed for the 5.8 acre parcel by Caves Valley Partners, a development company that wants to build shops and a Royal Farms at the site. Opponents say a gas station will cause pollution, traffic congestion and isn't a fitting "gateway" to Towson. The County Council approved a contract to sell the land to Caves Valley in 2013.
The project is proposed at York Road and Bosley Avenue, the site of a county public works facility and a former fire station. Plans are advancing through the county's development review process, and the county began tearing down a building on March 31 and removing trees on April 1, according to David Marks, the Republican county councilman who represents the area.
A green-space advocacy group, the Green Towson Alliance, surveyed the property in September and returned April 2 to see what had been removed. The group claims 30 trees, including seven with a diameter larger than 30 inches, had been cut down.
In a December County Council resolution advancing the development, Marks said he included language meant to protect mature trees on the property.
The resolution, sponsored by Marks, moved the development forward in the county's process, sparking more criticism from opponents.
County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said in a Monday email statement the county is cleaning up the site in preparation for a sale approved by the County Council in 2013.
Kobler did not answer questions posed Wednesday about who made the decision to cut down trees. Asked whether the county's action violated the council's resolution, she also referred to her original statement.
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County Councilman Wade Kach, a Republican who represents District 3, to the north of Towson, attended the 5 p.m. protest to show what he said was his disgust for the removal of the trees. Kach said that a private property owner would need to get a special exemption from the county to take down larger trees.
"The attitude is, 'we own it, we can do whatever we want,'" Kach said of county officials. The county "needs to follow their own zoning laws," he added.
"It saves the future owners from going through the county process and expense to get permission to take these trees down," Kach added.
Caves Valley did not respond to a request for comment.
The Towson-based developer wants approval to put gas pumps on the site, which isn't currently allowed under the property's zoning. In exchange Caves Valley has agreed to pay for $50,000 for improvements to the West Towson Trail, tree plantings in West Towson and to install solar-powered speed display signs on Stevenson Road, west of York Road, and on Stevenson Lane, east of York Road.
According to Marks, the next step in the planned unit development process will be a community input meeting, after which the County Council will have 90 days to decide to continue review of the project, or kill it.
Marks said the earliest he expects the development could be approved is spring of 2018, and after that there is a chance to appeal the decision to the county's Board of Appeals.