The final step in the development process for Towson Station is underway after a Baltimore County administrative law judge heard a total of seven hours of testimony regarding the controversial project proposed by developer Caves Valley Partners.
At the hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, multiple county government employees recommended that Judge Lawrence Stahl approve the proposal for the shopping center at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue, saying it met the county laws and guidelines reviewed by each department. Caves Valley needs the administrative law judge’s approval to start construction.
Representatives from the departments of Planning; Permits, Approvals and Inspections; Recreation and Parks; and Environmental Protection and Sustainability all said the proposal complied with their guidelines. Any issues county agencies had with the project had been addressed in revised proposals, those officials testified.
Only one county agency representative did not recommend approval: Joe Merrey, of the Zoning Review Office. He said that although the downtown Towson district, of which the Towson Station land is part, does not have specific parking requirements other than a “reasonableness standard,” he was personally not sure if the 200 parking spaces Caves Valley plans to provide would be adequate for the mix of restaurants and retailers planned for the space.
“I can’t recommend approval because I don’t believe that I can offer anything but a personal opinion, albeit a personal opinion based on 30 years of doing this,” Merrey said.
Four Towson residents representing the group Save Towson’s Gateway and attorney Michael McCann appeared as the opposing party, though McCann said the group was not against the development. McCann cross-examined witnesses and the residents testified that though they liked the project better than the original proposal for a Royal Farms gas station, it could be better.
“I look at this and wonder: Is this going to draw people to want to convene? Is it really going to pull people in as a community?” said Mark Lee, who lives less than 900 feet from the property. He clarified that he does not oppose the development, but thinks “there’s an opportunity to make it even better.” The residents suggested more open space, amenities and pedestrian safety features.
On the second day of testimony, the judge cut off a line of questioning from McCann regarding the trees that were cut down in April 2017, sparking a controversy colloquially dubbed “Tree-gate.”
When the county removed the trees, Caves Valley had already begun a Planned Unit Development process for a Royal Farms gas station. The county had the 30 trees removed after exchanging emails about their plans with Venable lawyer Christopher Mudd, who represents Caves Valley, McCann said.
That PUD process was set aside as Caves Valley pursued the plan currently under review, which includes a Chase Bank branch, Men’s Wearhouse and Mission BBQ.
Ordinarily, developers who remove trees in the downtown Towson zone must either replace them or pay a fee-in-lieu. But the Caves Valley attorneys argued that because the county removed the trees before the current plans were filed, the developer should be responsible only for replacing the trees that were left on the property — not the 30 trees that were removed. The judge agreed.
“To me, the important thing to me is that when this process began the trees were not there,” Stahl said. “The salient point is that I am here to define this development plan as submitted. What may have happened to [the trees] previously is not relevant.”
In her testimony, Stoneleigh resident Brenda Bodian said regardless of whether Caves Valley is legally obligated to replace the trees, the gesture would help mend its frayed relationship with the surrounding community. She suggested splitting the cost with the county and adding trees throughout downtown Towson.
“There are a lot of bad feelings from before … if the developer could work with somebody at the county to come up with a compromise where maybe you divide it up, it would go a huge way toward making people feel like the war is ended,” Bodian said.
Because the second day of hearings ran until the end of the workday, Stahl asked each side’s attorneys to compile their closing arguments in a letter due Jan. 28. His decision will come 15 days after that, he said.