The Towson Row bailout is a good deal for whom?

There is an editorial posted today by the Baltimore Sun captioned “Towson Row has been handled badly but still may be a good deal.” A good deal for whom? Certainly for the developers.  Probably not for the City of Baltimore or for the ordinary taxpayers of Baltimore County.

The Sun’s editorial board focused on the practical problem of filling the empty crater located where Towson Row is supposed to be. There is a longer view that I believe that the editorial board missed. I wholeheartedly agree, however, with the point made in the editorial that there are important questions remaining to be answered, and that the Baltimore County Council cannot responsibly vote on the proposed $43 million bailout as scheduled on Monday.

Hopefully, the County Council will heed that advice. Given more time, perhaps the other important questions can be explored, and the longer view taken. I have three suggested areas of inquiry. The first is whether the scale of the proposed development is harmful to the City of Baltimore.

What happened to the concept of “regionalism”?

During his testimony at Tuesday’s work session on the proposed bailout, Will Anderson, the director of the County’s Department of Economic and Workforce Development stated that Towson Row was intended to position the County to be able to compete with Anne Arundel and Howard County and the City of Baltimore. It was a point underscored by Anirban Basu, an economist and president of Sage Policy Group, which was paid $9,600 by the County to analyze the economic impact of Towson Row.

Mr. Basu downplayed the size of the County’s contribution. He described the $43 million amount as relatively small, especially considering the County’s need to “compete” for economic development. Here is Mr. Basu’s statement as reported by WYPR:

“Because there is a Harbor East. There’s a Harbor Point. There’s a Port Covington. There’s a Locust Point. And all of these areas are competing with Towson for the most prestigious employers, the highest paying employers in the region.”

Should Baltimore County be using taxpayers’ money to compete with the City of Baltimore for the headquarters of major employers at this point in time? Is it a legitimate goal of Baltimore County government to use government subsidies to turn Towson into a traffic-choked replica of Silver Spring at the expense of the City of Baltimore, when the city is in a life-or-death struggle to restore its employment and tax base?

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz describes himself as a friend of the city, and as embracing “regionalism.” To date, regionalism is a concept to which he has given mostly lip service.

Attempting to create a large edge city replete with high-rise office buildings a couple of miles outside of the city is not regionalism. Washington, D.C., with a massive federal agency presence downtown, can survive a Silver Spring on its outskirts. The City of Baltimore may not.

It is an issue that was largely glossed over when Towson Row was proposed in 2013, and again in 2015 when the County Council rushed through the zoning concessions necessary to allow the developers to shoehorn 1.2 million square feet of improvements on about five acres of land.  Better late than never, and the issue should be considered by the County Council before it votes to approve the bailout.

Why isn’t the absence of development impact fees in Baltimore County recognized as part of the taxpayer subsidy of Towson Row?

In a post on Tuesday, I talked about how the absence of development impact fees or development excise taxes has been a boon for developers in Baltimore County, but has harmed residents. The last time that Baltimore County gave serious consideration to the imposition of impact fees was in 2005.

Ironically, it was a study by Mr. Basu and the Sage Policy Group commissioned by the Maryland Homebuilders Association (a trade group) that helped persuade Baltimore County officials that impact fees were not justified in Baltimore County. Mr. Basu concluded in 2005 that existing taxes and fees paid by the owners of new construction more than offset the costs of expanding the capacity of public facilities to accommodate the new construction.

Suffice it to say that other economists have studied jurisdictions with similar tax and fee structures and concluded that, without impact fees or development excise taxes imposed on builders and developers, the owners of existing homes and businesses subsidize the expansion of infrastructure capacity necessary to support new construction. In any case, Baltimore County remains the only metropolitan county in Maryland (and the only county in Maryland with a population of over 100,000 except Wicomico County) that does not impose either impact fees or development excise taxes on builders and developers – and it shows.

When you drive around the streets and road of the County, and visit schools and other public buildings, two words come to mind: Deferred maintenance. Infrastructure is not being repaired or replaced when it should be in Baltimore County. That will catch up with the County sooner rather than later.

I threw some numbers around in my post on Tuesday, and I will provide some more today. The combined populations of Anne Arundel County and Howard County are just a little more than the population of Baltimore County. In the past three fiscal years, those two counties collected a combined total of about $96.5 million in impact fees.

That’s $96.5 million that the two counties did not have to spend on expanding the capacity of streets and roads and other public infrastructure to support new residential and commercial development, and could use to take care of existing infrastructure. Think of what Baltimore County could have done to fix its streets, roads, schools, and other infrastructure with $96.5 million over the past three years.

The developers and builders of Towson Row will not have to pay transportation impact fees. So who is going to pay for the widening and other improvement of streets and roads in Towson necessary to cope with the traffic generated by Towson Row? That’s right, the same taxpayers paying for the $43 million bailout.

Maybe Baltimore County could chip in a little bit more money and ask Mr. Basu to calculate what the developers would pay in impact fees for Towson Row if it was in Anne Arundel or Howard County. I believe that the savings to the developers attributable to the fact that they will not have to pay impact fees in Baltimore County should be recognized as part of the County’s financial contribution to the development.

Do the developers need the bailout to make Towson Row economically feasible, as they claim?

Brian Gibbons, the president and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, testified on Tuesday that the developers needed the proposed County funding to make the project work. Mr. Gibbons has a sound reputation as a developer, and his credibility is not in question. But that’s not the point. Individual members of the County Council may operate on trust, but as a body the County Council is under a duty to verify.

In an email that I sent to the County Council on Monday, I suggested to the County Council that they should require the County Attorney to confirm on the record that the County Council has the legal authority to approve the bailout. A city or county cannot simply decide to spend public money for a private purpose outside of a specified framework enacted into law by statute or ordinance.

The only such framework relevant to the proposed bailout of which I am aware is found in Title 10 of Article 10 of the Baltimore County Code, which establishes the Economic Development Revolving Financing Fund. Before a loan or grant may be made from that fund, a detailed application must be submitted to the Department of Economic and Workforce Development that requires the applicant “to supply information necessary to evaluate the requested financial assistance” including the “financial ability of the applicant” and the “need” for the assistance.

The application for financial assistance in this amount for a project of this size would be voluminous. Was an application submitted, and has it been made available for review by the County Auditor and County Council? Was an evaluation of the application performed by the Director of Economic and Workforce Development according to the criteria specified in § 10-10-105(d) of the County Code?

If the procedures set forth in § 10-10-105 of the County Code were not followed, what is the legal authority for the proposed financial assistance to the developers of Towson Row? Failure to follow the legal formalities necessary to obtain the assistance would spell doom for the tax credit advances and hotel tax advances if a taxpayer’s suit is filed.  Considering the widespread and vehement opposition to the bailout, it would be foolish to assume that a taxpayer’s suit would not be filed.

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The editorial in the Sun accurately described the mishandling of this matter by the Kamenetz administration. If anything, the Sun’s observation that Mr. Kamenetz “has worn out his welcome with many voters” is a gross understatement. In my opinion, the chickens from his generally imperious attitude toward residents have come home to roost.

I take issue, however, with the suggestion in the editorial that “politics…related to Mr. Kamenetz’s gubernatorial aspirations” is playing a role in the opposition to the bailout. From what I have seen and heard from the opponents, it appears to me that the opposition is based on the belief by the opponents that the proposed bailout is simply one more instance in which the Kamenetz administration has favored the interests of developers over the interests of the ordinary citizens of Baltimore County.

December 14, 2017

The Towson Row bailout.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has asked the County Council to approve what, in my opinion, can only be described as a $43 million bailout of the prospective developers of Towson Row. Towson Row is a massive but stalled project lying in the heart of Towson. The bailout is scheduled to be discussed at a work session of the County Council on Tuesday, December 12th, with a vote planned for the Council meeting on Monday, December 18th.

The proposed bailout was presented to the County Council on December 4th. Is sixteen days sufficient time for the County Council to review and approve such an extraordinary, unprecedented measure? Of course not.  Haste is particularly foolhardy in the matter at hand.

To her credit, Pamela Wood of the Baltimore Sun obtained copies of the “County Funding Agreement” and “Development Agreement” that the County Council is being asked to approve, and posted them online on December 8th. I have reproduced below a copy of the email that I sent to members of the County Council yesterday raising some issues that I believe that they must consider before voting to approve the agreements.

Am I confident that the members of the County Council will read and understand the two agreements, or read my email, before they vote on December 18th? No, but one can always hope.

Before I get to the email, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Mr. Kamenetz’s primary motivation for proposing this bailout is, in my opinion, to heal a potentially-fatal political wound. Mr. Kamenetz is an announced candidate for governor, and he can ill afford to go into next year’s elections with Towson Row consisting of nothing more than it is now: A cratered eyesore in downtown Towson.

In a podcast reported yesterday in the Baltimore Business Journal, Mr. Kamenetz stated that he would try to separate himself from the other Democratic candidates on the issue of economic development by touting his success in projects like Towson Row. In the podcast, he pointed to the redevelopment of Sparrows Point and the Owings Mills Mall. The debacle over Towson Station and the potential failure of Towson Row threaten to undermine that campaign theme.

Mr. Kamenetz isn’t going to win the governor’s race on the strength of his less-than-charming personality. He already is going to have to live during his campaign with the infamous video of him telling Mays Chapel residents that “it is my job to talk, your job to listen right now.”

Mr. Kamenetz is going to have to try to sell himself to the voters of the state as a goal-oriented and successful, if occasionally arrogant and abrasive, leader. A montage of images that includes the episode in Mays Chapel as a representation of his temperament, and a photo of the large empty patch of dirt where Towson Row is supposed to be as a symbol of his failed economic development policies, would doom his chances to be elected governor. In my opinion, Mr. Kamenetz is desperate to get construction underway on Towson Row.

Caves Valley Partners, a developer with close political ties to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, unveiled its plans for Towson Row in 2013. The project is a mixed-use development sitting on approximately five acres bounded by York Road, Towsontown Boulevard, and Washington and Chesapeake Avenues. The ambitious plans announced in 2013 called for office buildings, a hotel, apartments, student housing, and retail shops anchored by a Whole Foods grocery store. The project consisted of 1.2 million square feet of space on five acres of land, with a price tag of $350 million.

Four years later, there is nothing but a large hole in the ground in the heart of Towson. The project faltered, with Arthur Adler, one of the Caves Valley partners, explaining that the construction of the planned parking garage under the Whole Foods grocery story “became too costly due to the rock presence as well as other construction costs.” Mr. Adler later clarified that Caves Valley was aware of the presence of rock, but that the cost to remove the rock was greater than expected.

In May of this year, the Owings Mills development firm Greenberg Gibbons Commercial Corporation announced that it would work with Caves Valley as “co-developers” of Towson Row. Brian Gibbons, chairman and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, said that his company would bring expertise as well as $100 million in additional investment to the project, which would be “jointly controlled” by Greenberg Gibbons and Caves Valley.

Mr. Gibbons stated that his company had been working “in the background” with Caves Valley for 18 months on a redesign of the project. “We’ve simplified the design,” Mr. Gibbons said. “We now have a project that is feasible to build.”

There was no mention at the time of any need for an infusion of County money, at least not publicly.  The subject of County grants did not come up in public until last month.

Earlier this month, Mr. Gibbons told the Sun that receiving the County’s financial help is “essential” to making Towson Row work. He stated that the County’s contribution is needed to finalize financing with a California pension fund that is investing in the project. The nearly $43 million in up-front help from the County represents “the minimum threshold we needed with our partners.”

Mr. Gibbons informed the Baltimore Business Journal that he expected to break ground with the construction of the Whole Foods grocery store at Towson Row in mid-2018. It now appears that he meant that he expected to break ground in mid-2018 if the County comes up with the money that the developers have requested.

The conventional wisdom in Baltimore County is that the developers have the Baltimore County Executive and County Council over a barrel with the developers’ insistence that they now need $43 million in County grants to make the development of Towson Row economically feasible. If it is true that the County Executive and County Council are over a barrel, it is only because County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and his cohorts on the County Council recklessly placed themselves in that position, and remain there by their own choice.

The tale of Towson Row is the story of all that is wrong with the development policy of the Kamenetz administration. Like the Towson Station saga, one thing comes through loud and clear when you look back at the history of the project, in my opinion: The primary focus of the Kamenetz administration is on helping the developers succeed, rather than on protecting the interests of the County and its taxpayers.

Soon after Caves Valley Partners unveiled its plans for the Towson Row project in 2013, the County began falling all over itself to clear the path for the development. Pamela Wood of the Sun recounted the history in an article last week.

One issue that Ms. Wood did not mention is the continuing questions surrounding construction of the so-called Towson relief sewer, a $1,262,626 project intended to increase sewerage capacity to accommodate the growth of Towson University and the future development of Towson Row. One of those questions is whether the developers of Towson Row will be expected to pay anything toward the construction of sewerage adequate to serve the development.

State Senator Jim Brochin, who represents the senatorial district in which Towson Row is located, estimated a year ago that the County had spent between $30 to $40 million on infrastructure to support development of Towson Row. The County already is in deep. The question becomes whether the County should dive in any deeper.

There is more invested in Towson Row than the County’s money. There is the political capital that has been invested by Mr. Kamenetz in securing the zoning concessions and taking other actions to promote the development. His reputation is at stake.

Mr. Kamenetz has touted Towson Row as a transformative project, the key to an initiative that he called “It’s Towson’s Time.” In October 2015, the following appeared on the County’s “Baltimore County News” website:

“Towson Row will transform the Towson skyline and become a focal point for residents, workers and visitors,” said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. “You can clearly see Towson Row’s footprint as you walk through downtown Towson. It’s exciting to see so much site activity [sic] as this significant private investment moves forward.”

“Towson Row will reaffirm Towson as a preeminent destination in Maryland, now and well into the future,” said Arthur Adler, partner of Caves Valley Partners. “We are completely reimagining the shopping, working, dining, entertainment, and green streetscape experience for Towson residents and visitors.”

The County Council could deny approval of the grant funding. That would send the developers back to the drawing boards to design a project that they could build without additional County financing. A redesign of that magnitude would produce a far less grandiose development than promised by Mr. Kamenetz, and could push the beginning of the construction beyond 2018 – outcomes unacceptable to Mr. Kamenetz.

An interesting confrontation looms. Councilman David Marks, who represents the Towson area and is in much the same political position as Mr. Kamenetz in terms of needing to get construction started on Towson Row, appears to be leaning toward approving the grants. Council Chairman Tom Quirk and Councilman Julian Jones, Jr., who almost always vote that way that Mr. Kamenetz wants them to vote, have already stated that they support the funding. (If they are your councilmen, feel free to ask them if they have even read the agreements.) The County Executive only needs one more vote.

The County Council does not allow public testimony at its evening legislative sessions. The County Council only allows public testimony at its work sessions, and schedules the work sessions during the middle of the day, when it is least convenient for most people to attend. Nevertheless, today’s work session is likely to be much more lively than usual because of the strong public opposition to the County financing of the controversial Towson Row project.

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It is a story for another day, but Baltimore County has become a developer’s paradise, with developers enjoying favored treatment by the County. An example of that favored treatment is the absence of development impact fees or development excise taxes. (There are legal differences between the two, but they serve the same purpose.)

There is a shabbiness to the public infrastructure in Baltimore County that you do not see in its neighbors to the west and south, Howard County and Anne Arundel County. Some of that has to do with the relative affluence of the three counties. The main reason, however, is that Baltimore County, alone among all metropolitan counties in the state, does not collect development impact fees or excise taxes.

Impact fees or development excise taxes are imposed on the builders of new residential and commercial structures to offset the costs of expanding facilities such as streets and roads, water supply and sewerage, libraries, fire and police stations, schools, etc. to accommodate the new structures. If a county doesn’t collect impact fees or development excise taxes from builders, the costs of expanding facilities to accommodate the new development fall on existing property owners.

That is what happens in Baltimore County. If the streets in your community are crumbling and public buildings (like schools) in poor condition, it is primarily because property and income tax revenues are being siphoned away to pay for the expansions in infrastructure needed to support new developments like Towson Row.

Let’s put this in perspective. Anne Arundel and Howard Counties have a combined population of about 877,600. Baltimore County has a population of about 831,000. In fiscal year 2017, Anne Arundel and Howard County collected a total of about $29.7 million in impact fees (Anne Arundel County) and development excise taxes (Howard County). That’s $29.7 million in property and income tax revenue that they didn’t have to spend to expand the capacity of infrastructure to support new development, and that therefore could be used to do things like repair and replace existing roads, schools, and other infrastructure.

The county closest in population to Baltimore County is Prince George’s County, with a population of about 909,500. Prince George’s County collected about $32.2 million in impact fees in fiscal year 2017. If you are from communities like Catonsville, Dundalk, Pikesville, or Towson, take a trip to Prince George’s County and tell me which county does a better job of keeping its streets and other governmental facilities in repair.

I bring up impact fees and development excise taxes only because it is worth considering that the builders of Towson Row will not pay them, despite the enormous impact that the development will have on public facilities, including streets and roads. Guess who will pay for expanding the capacity of those facilities to accommodate Towson Row? That’s right, the same people paying for the grants.

My email to the Council.

Members of the County Council:

I will spare you my opinion on the wisdom and propriety of the proposal to award grants totaling $43,016,785 to the developers of Towson Row. I will, however, make some suggestions, comments and questions based on my reading of the Community Funding Agreement and the Development Agreement.

What is the legal authority for the grants?

The County Council should insist that the County Attorney, preferably in a formal legal opinion, confirm that the County Council has the legal authority to approve the expenditure of County funds for the grants contemplated by the “County Funding Agreement.” Although the agreement describes them as “tax credit advances” and “hotel tax advances,” that language is nothing more than window dressing, in my opinion. The only relationship to tax credits and hotel taxes is that the amount of the grants is, for no reason that I can ascertain, determined by the projected amounts of certain tax credits and hotel tax payments, and the developers would forego claiming certain tax credits to which they would be entitled.

The disbursements of County funds scheduled under the agreement are grants, pure and simple. The recipient of the grants under the agreement is identified as TR Development Corporation.

The Baltimore County Council has no inherent power to make grants to private for-profit businesses on an ad hoc basis; grants of public money for private purposes must be explicitly authorized by state statutes or county ordinances. The Baltimore County Code does have provisions for economic development grants set forth in Title 10 of Article 10, which establishes the Economic Development Revolving Financing Fund.

County law specifies a process for applying for an economic development grant or loan, and requires an application conforming to the requirements of § 10-10-105 of the County Code. Was that process followed? If not, under what legal authority are these grants being made to TR Development Corporation?

There were two red flags in the agreement that caught my attention. The first is that the authority for the funding is not included in the Recitals, as customarily is done, at least in my experience. The second is that the agreement includes representations by TR Development Corporation that it has the full power and authority to enter into the agreement, and that the agreement is valid and does not violate any of the corporation’s organizational documents. The agreement contains no parallel representations on the part of the County.

In my opinion, the omissions are odd, but may not signify anything other than casual draftsmanship. In context, however, they support my opinion that the legality of the County Council’s action in approving the grants must be confirmed.

Why is confirmation important? There is widespread and vehement opposition to the proposed grants. Unless the County Attorney can render a persuasive opinion that there is sound legal authority for the grants – and that the required process for approving such grants was followed – a taxpayer’s suit challenging the grants is almost inevitable. A successful suit would all but guarantee that Towson Row remains nothing more than a hole in the ground for the foreseeable future.

Conversion of the sale of County-owned property into a gift.

There is another provision of the County Funding Agreement that is, well, innovative. In effect, it converts the sale of three County-owned parcels to the developers of Towson Row into what is tantamount to a gift.

The County previously has contracted to sell three County-owned parcels within the development site to the developers for a total purchase price of $2,335,825. Under the agreement, that amount will be “reinvested” by the County in the Towson Row project upon receipt.

The “reinvestment” clause provides that the money realized from the sale of the properties will be applied to the first scheduled “tax credit advance” under the agreement. Once so applied, the “income” from the sale will reduce the total amount of the tax advances to which the County is obligated to disburse to the developers in the form of grants by the amount of the sales price of $2,335,825. In other words, it will reduce the total amount of the grants from $43,016,785 to $40,680,960.

The effect is that the County realizes no money from the sale of the properties; it simply gets a reduction in the total amount of the grant funds that the County has voluntarily obligated itself to award to the developers! As I said, I give credit to the drafter of the agreement for being creative, although I am uncertain of the benefit to the County.

In my experience, it is one of those provisions that you see in a proposed contract to which your first reaction is “you have to be kidding.” The County Council should at least be aware that the agreement foregoes the $2,335,825 in revenue anticipated from the sale of the three properties, and converts it into a “grant” (or gift) to the developers.

Why isn’t Towson Row Statutory Trust a party to the County Funding Agreement, and what protections are afforded to the County under the County Funding Agreement if TR Development Corporation goes bankrupt?

The agreements before the County Council for approval include the County Funding Agreement referenced above, and a Development Agreement. Kudos to Pamela Wood of the Baltimore Sun for obtaining copies of the documents and posting them online.

The parties to the County Funding Agreement are the County and TR Development Corporation, which is named in the agreement as the “Recipient.” The agreement is signed on behalf of the Recipient by Arthur Adler, identified as the president of TR Development Corporation.

The County Funding Agreement also imposes obligations on the “Developer,” identified as Towson Row Statutory Trust. Towson Row Statutory Trust is not a party to the agreement. Mr. Adler, however, also signed the agreement on behalf of Towson Row Statutory Trust as an “authorized person,” under the following statement: “Towson Row Statutory Trust executes this Agreement to acknowledge its consent to the obligations of the Developer contained herein.”

The parties to the Development Agreement are the County and the Towson Row Statutory Trust. Towson Row Statutory Trust is identified as the owner or contract purchaser of the parcels of land to be developed as Towson Row. The agreement is signed on behalf of the Towson Row Statutory Trust by Mr. Adler as an “authorized person.” Mr. Adler is a partner with Caves Valley Partners. Neither agreement is signed by a representative of Greenberg Gibbons Commercial Corporation, which became a “co-developer” of Towson Row in May.

The almost universal rule-of-thumb is that persons or entities intended to be bound by the terms and conditions of a contract are made parties to the contract, with their respective rights and obligations set forth in the contract. Why isn’t Towson Row Statutory Trust a party to the County Funding Agreement?

The County Council also should ascertain what if any protections are afforded to the County under the County Funding Agreement if TR Development Corporation goes bankrupt. In other words, what status would the future property and hotel tax revenues anticipated to “repay” the County for the tax credit and hotel tax advances have under such a bankruptcy filing?

Exactly whose interests are being protected by these grants?

According to news accounts, Greenberg Gibbons Commercial Corporation announced in May that it formed a joint venture with Caves Valley Partners to be a “co-developer” of Towson Row, and that it would bring additional investors to the project. Caves Valley Partners reportedly faltered when the costs of removing rock from the proposed site of a parking garage were greater than expected, and the project stalled.

Whose investment in Towson Row is at risk if this project doesn’t get the grants, or doesn’t go forward for some other reason? Or if the project fails for some reason, such as changing market or economic conditions? One would suspect that Greenberg Gibbons protected itself and its investors as much as possible in return for coming aboard. I believe that the public has the right to know whose financial interests are being protected by these grants, especially in light of the controversy around the size of the campaign contributions  made by Caves Valley Partners.

Where is the Fiscal Note from the County Auditor?

As of this afternoon, it still had not been posted. A proposal to award $43M in grants with no Fiscal Note? In an ideal world – and nothing about Baltimore County government resembles an ideal world – that Fiscal Note should have been posted at least 7-10 days ago so that people attending the work session tomorrow could read it for purposes of preparing their testimony. (Not to mention that members of the Council might want to ask knowledgeable questions about it at the work session.)

Does the analysis from Sage Policy Group state that the infusion of $43 million in County funds is necessary to make the project work?

If the entire report has been made available, I can’t find it. I have read statements attributed to the Kamenetz administration that the report concludes that the $43 million in grants are “justified” by the ultimate benefits in revenue, jobs, etc. Even assuming that is correct, it answers the wrong question. Does the report also state that the $43 million in grants are necessary to make the project work? Was Sage even asked to address that question?

If not, on whose word is the County Council relying that there is a need for these grants? I point out that, under Section 10-10-105(c) of the County Code, an application for assistance from the Economic Development Revolving Financing Fund is evaluated on the basis of “need” and the “financial ability of the applicant,” among other factors. $43 million is a whole lot of money to be ponied up without some independent professional determination that, considering the financial resources of the applicants, the applicants need this money to make the project work.

I understand that this proposal was presented by the County Executive to the County Council on Dec 4th. Mr. Kamenetz must have remarkable faith in the acumen of the members of the County Council to believe that they will be ready to approve such an extraordinary undertaking by December 18th.

Good luck, and thank you for considering my suggestion, comments and questions.

David A. Plymyer
Catonsville

 

 

 

There’s more to the Towson Station story.

The story reported in The Sun on the criticism by some members of the Baltimore County Council of the secret five-year extension of the closing date for the sale of county-owned property at the intersection of York Road and Bosley Avenue in Towson to Caves Valley Partners understated the controversy (“Contract extension for Towson ‘gateway’ property sparks council criticism,” Nov. 29). The property is the proposed site of a development known as Towson Station.

Let’s put the reaction by Councilman Wade Kach and others in context. On April 1, 2017, a county contractor, acting on orders from the administration of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, cut down 30 trees that surrounded the property. The tree removal defied a condition placed on the proposed development of the property by the County Council.

An investigation by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is underway to determine if the trees were removed in violation of forest conservation laws. Caves Valley Partners had indicated during the development review process that the trees were not compatible with its proposed development plan. The closing of the sale of the property is contingent on approval of the development plan.

On April 3, 2017, Mr. Kamenetz’s second-in-command, Fred Homan, told the County Council that the reason for removing the trees was to “accelerate the settlement on the property” because “the county needs the cash from the sale.” Removing the trees eliminated a potential delay in approval of the development plan. On July 26, 2017, however, Mr. Homan approved a five-year extension of the settlement, from December 31, 2018 to December 31, 2023. The extension was not disclosed to the County Council or the public until discovered by the Baltimore Post.

Hurry up in April, slow down in July. What in the world is going on? In April, county government was in such a hurry that it used money appropriated for the maintenance of county parks and other property to cut down the trees to prepare the property for development, as reported by the Baltimore Post. The county also demolished existing structures even though the contract of sale calls for the property to be transferred “as is.” No money appears to have been appropriated for the demolition.

Councilman Kach, a former auditor, has called for an audit to determine if county money was misspent. Under the county charter, an official who spends county funds for a purpose for which they were not appropriated may be removed from office. Something changed in July, but no one in the county is saying what it was. Mr. Kamenetz described the extension as “reasonable.” Reasonable for whom?

The extension does not compensate the county for the loss of the use of the revenue from the sale during the extension, nor does it provide for any upward adjustment in the purchase price because of any increase in the value of the property. The $8.3 million purchase price was agreed upon in 2013. Will the value be the same in 2023?

Additionally, the Kamenetz administration has signaled that it will recommend that the County Council approve a reduction in the purchase price if Caves Valley agrees to remove a gas station and convenience store from its development plan. What does the county get out of the lengthy extension to what Councilman Kach described as a “bad deal” in the first place?

The only thing that comes to mind is that the county gets the possibility of another piece of property in the heart of Towson tied up by Caves Valley and lying vacant and undeveloped for an extended period, like Towson Row. The Towson Row development is now a joint venture between CVP and Greenberg Gibbons. The county hopes that a new $16.4 million infusion of county money approved last month finally gets construction of Towson Row underway next year .

The Kamenetz administration has a lot of explaining to do. Don’t hold your breath.

[Published as a letter to the editor by The Baltimore Sun on December 1, 2017 but not posted to my blog until January 8, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]