There is an event scheduled for Monday, April 2nd at 5:00 p.m. at the intersection of York Road and Bosley Avenue in Towson that deserves more attention than it is getting. The event is the Treegate Anniversary Rally organized to remember what, at least in my memory, is the single greatest affront by a county executive in Maryland to a county council and the citizens that the county council represents.
I had nothing to do with organizing the rally but, in my opinion, as many citizens of Baltimore County as possible should try to attend. To paraphrase the infamous admonition by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz at an event in Timonium in 2013, this is the citizens’ turn to talk, and his – and members of the Baltimore County Council – turn to listen.
“Treegate” is a symbol of just how bad the pro-developer, “pay to play” culture of Baltimore County government has become. The goal of the rally, however, is not to look backward. Hopefully, the rally on April 2nd will mark the beginning of a concerted effort by citizens to regain control of their county.
A bit of history: The property at the location of the rally is owned by the county and is under a contract of sale to Caves Valley Partners, which intends to develop the property as a project now known as “Towson Station.” On December 19, 2016, the county council passed Resolution No. 113-16, conditioning future development of the property by Caves Valley on the retention of thirty mature trees that ringed the property.
On Saturday, April 1, 2017, a county contractor, without prior notice to either the Baltimore County Council or the public, showed up at the property and cut down the trees. On April 3, 2017, County Administrative Officer Fred Homan, the second-in-command to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, appeared before the county council and told the council that he ordered the trees cut down over the previous weekend without regard to the council’s resolution.
Mr. Homan explained to the council that Resolution No. 133-16 was legally binding only on a future private developer of the property – not on the county administration. If you are thinking that the Kamenetz administration should have been more concerned with the intent of the county council that the trees be preserved than with a legal technicality, then you know nothing about Baltimore County.
Caves Valley was not happy with the requirement that the treed buffer be retained. Mr. Homan gave the following reason for cutting down the trees, which effectively removed the condition placed by the council on the development of the site:
“And quite frankly, the county is currently moving to accelerate the settlement on the property [with Caves Valley] so the county can receive the $8 million that it’s currently had to forward finance through the sale of debt. That keeps the revenue as a receivable, which does not help. The county needs the cash from the sale of the property. So, the county is trying to accelerate the close of the property. That’s what going on at this point in time.” [Emphasis added.]
Was Mr. Homan telling the truth about the reason the Kamenetz administration defied the intent of the county council? On July 26, 2017, again without notice to the county council or the public, Mr. Homan approved a five-year extension of the closing date for the sale of the property to Caves Valley from December 31, 2018 to December 31, 2023. So, in April he was accelerating the sale, but in July he was decelerating it? To my knowledge, the Kamenetz administration never explained why it changed its mind about the immediate need for the money from the sale of the property.
You might think that the county council would have been outraged by the removal of the trees by the Kamenetz administration. If you think that, I will remind you again that this is Baltimore County we are talking about.
At the council meeting on April 3, 2017 at which Mr. Homan told the council that he had ordered the trees removed, the best that the council could muster came from David Marks, the councilman who represents the Towson area. Mr. Marks admonished Mr. Homan for not giving him a “heads up” about the removal of the trees. A heads up?
Nor was the county council upset enough to do anything about it when the council later found out that the Kamenetz administration paid the contractor to cut down the trees with funds appropriated for the general landscaping of county parks and other property. Not that the council inquired about the source of the funds; it was Ann Constantino working for a news site known as The Baltimore Post who obtained the documents relevant to the funding that I then reviewed.
The funds used to pay the tree-cutting contractor were appropriated by the county council for use by the Property Management Division of the Baltimore County Office of Budget and Finance in its Grounds Maintenance Program. The program is described in the budget as having the purpose “to provide grounds maintenance for all County facilities to the citizens of Baltimore County so that they can participate in leisure activities in recreation facilities in a safe and clean environment.”
The services provided by the program are listed as “including grass maintenance, ball diamond grooming, turf management, and general landscaping.” Removing thirty trees to prepare a site for private development is not “general landscaping,” and it is not “maintenance.”
Councilman Wade Kach appeared genuinely upset when he learned about the source of the funds, describing county government as “out of control.” “As a former auditor, I can tell you, this ill-advised action cries out for a full audit to get to the bottom of this deplorable behavior by county government,” Mr. Kach said.
No audit, “full” or otherwise, has taken place since Mr. Kach made those remarks last November. This is Baltimore County, remember, where there seems to be a peculiar allergy to audits.
Ordinary citizens in Baltimore County have little chance when their interests collide with those of the developers who contribute to the campaigns of County elected officials. Ms. Constantino has done tremendous work in documenting the flow of money going to the campaigns of those officials, and the following are links to stories that I consider must-reading for citizens of the county:
What distinguishes Baltimore County from other jurisdictions is not only the large amount of the campaign contributions, it is also the fact that the contributions are spread around to all the members of the county council. When a well-connected developer contacts Mr. Kamenetz about a project and asks the county to jump, it seems that all that remains to be done is for Mr. Kamenetz to call the members of the county council and tell them how high.
Mr. Kamenetz tried to sell the narrative that major financial and other concessions to developers were necessary to help the county grow. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Baltimore County enjoys the advantages enjoyed by the other counties in the Baltimore metropolitan area: A strategic location in a very affluent state with a skilled and highly-educated workforce; access to major sea, land and air transportation facilities; large federal employment centers; and proximity to a major city with educational, cultural, entertainment and medical amenities – but without all the problems of the city.
Growth was going to come to Baltimore County. It was never a question of if; it was always a question of the quality of the development and how well the county planned for it. Howard and Anne Arundel Counties grew without mortgaging their futures to subsidize a favored group of developers, as I described in a previous post. Baltimore County could have done so as well, but it did not.
The good news is that there appears to be an awakening among the citizens of Baltimore County as they realize that they are going to have to pay more attention, and work harder, to make sure that their government keeps their best interests at heart. It is a recognition that applies to the Baltimore County Public Schools, and it certainly applies to the Baltimore County government. Let’s hope that the Treegate Anniversary Rally builds on the momentum that already has begun.
David A. Plymyer
March 24, 2018