Baltimore County officials are poised to reconsider a controversial proposal for a gas station at a highly visible intersection in Towson — a project that's stirred months of protest from residents and strained relationships among politicians who will decide its fate.
The Towson Station project on the site of a former fire station on York Road at Bosley Avenue has residents and business interests debating what's best for what many consider the "gateway" to Towson.
Baltimore County Council members gave a green light last year to developer Caves Valley Partners to take Towson Station through the county development review process. The proposal calls for a Royal Farms gas station and a retail center.
But amid vocal opposition from residents who see the gas station as inappropriate for a marquee location, Towson's representative on the council, David Marks, said last month he had had a change of heart. He pulled his support of the proposal, and now wants to ban the use of gas pumps at the 5.8-acre site.
That move, scheduled to be discussed Tuesday at a council work session, would effectively kill the Royal Farms plan.
Marks had initially backed the Caves Valley plan. His switch is a rare move, one that has some council members undecided how to proceed. In Baltimore County, the council usually defers to the wishes of the council member whose district includes the project.
But that may not be the case this time.
"I'm all for development in the right places, but on the other hand, are all of these community folks right?" said Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who said she isn't sure how she'll vote. "Will it have this effect as the gateway of Towson? I don't know."
Opponents of the project are embracing Marks' reversal.
"The Towson community was very vocal in saying, look, we would like to see development at this site, but a gas station is not appropriate here," said Bryan Fischer, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, an umbrella civic group.
Fischer said he hopes if the council eliminates the gas station, it will force Caves Valley Partners to come up with a proposal that's more acceptable to the community.
"I think the best course of action, really, is going to be coming up with another site plan," he said. "I would work with anyone to come up with a solution that both would be economically viable and acceptable to the community."
Members of the Greater Towson group, as well as another group called the Green Towson Alliance, have led local residents in hammering county officials in opposition to Towson Station through rallies, demonstrations and public testimony.
Their efforts intensified this spring when the county government — which owns the land and is selling it to Caves Valley Partners — cut down about 30 trees. Marks said after that incident that he had been unaware of the county's plan to remove the trees.
Josh Glikin, a West Towson resident involved in the opposition, said he thinks community pressure made a difference.
He said residents made clear that a gas station and $50,000 offered by the developer for community projects didn't meet the standard of a "community benefit" that's required by county law for projects under the planned-unit development process. Caves Valley requested the process because a gas station would not have otherwise been allowed at the site.
"Our councilman has seen the light that this doesn't provide a benefit," Glikin said. "The developer is unwilling to modify the plan in any substantial way to meet the community's desires."
Marks said he saw that the project was headed toward a lengthy and expensive path of appeals and court battles.
"I believe the best way to end years of controversy and litigation is to start over," said the Perry Hall Republican.
He said he's willing to allow Towson Station to keep moving through the process, but without gas pumps.
Representatives of Caves Valley declined comment for this article.
Marks isn't sure how his plan will pay out. Following Tuesday's public hearing, a council vote is scheduled for Aug. 7.
He needs four votes on the seven-member council to eliminate the gas pumps at Towson Station. Some of his colleagues say they're frustrated they're being asked to reverse course on a matter they thought they'd already decided.
"It is sort of like the gift that keeps on giving. Just when you think it's over, it comes back," said Councilman Julian Jones, a Democrat from Woodstock.
Jones said he respects the tradition of letting the local councilman decide such issues, but he's concerned about following Marks in flipping positions on the issue. He said he isn't sure which way he'll vote.
Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, said he's "definitely supporting" Marks.
Council Chairman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said he will "listen to all sides of the issue and make a decision from there."
The other Republican councilman, Dundalk's Todd Crandell, did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Nor did Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat.
Almond said one voice that's been absent is that of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat considering a run for governor.
"I would have hoped the administration would have gotten into this more and helped," Almond said.
It was Kamenetz who decided in 2012 to sell the Towson fire station and two other county-owned properties. His administration picked Caves Valley and its Royal Farms-anchored proposal as the winning bid.
Kamenetz declined an interview request Monday through a spokeswoman, who said the executive plans to let the council's process play out.