Baltimore County official tells citizens: “It’s not a democracy. It’s not mob rule”
Residents opposing a Royal Farms store in their neighborhood come up against a decades-old process designed to favor developers and silence them
Above: Deborah Dopkin, chair of the Baltimore County Board of Appeals hearing on the Royal Farms project at 1215 York Road. (Webex)
Having spent millions on property at the intersection of York and Greenridge roads, the parent company of Royal Farms was clearly hoping to put a convenience store there, Lutherville residents knew.
The community association made it clear they did not want gas pumps. Residents worried about the impact of more cars at the busy intersection, and more impervious surface and runoff in close proximity to homes and a stream.
But they never got a chance to express those concerns in a public meeting.
They discovered in November – at the last minute, on an obscure online county government meeting calendar – that a proposal had not only been submitted to Baltimore County, but was about to be approved under a provision of the County Code that is poorly understood by the public, but well known to developers:
That’s because it effectively cuts citizens out of the process.
Once granted, the so-called “(b)(8) limited exemption” for “a minor development” means the project does not require a Community Input Meeting and, in the absence of going through that step, cannot be challenged before an administrative law judge.
Instead, the proposal by Two Farms Inc. (Royal Farms’ corporate parent) for 1215 York Road was swiftly approved at the November 30 meeting.
Held by an in-house panel called the Development Review Committee (DRC) – and chaired by Lloyd T. Moxley of the Permits, Approvals and Inspections office – the meeting took place, as DRC meetings apparently always do, with no public participation.
Two Farms’ request was approved even though it was opposed by Jenifer Nugent, chief of development for the Planning Department.
“Those are my private notes”
In the meeting, Nugent both raised zoning issues and questioned the lack of opportunity for public input, according to community members who watched online.
There are no minutes or recordings of these meetings, say residents, who have been unable to obtain a written record of what transpired or of Nugent’s comments.
After they are made, the DRC’s decisions are not published on the county’s website. Still, appeals must be filed within 30 days of the unpublished “director’s letter” announcing the granting of the exemption.
At one point, Moxley referred to notes he had taken at the November meeting. But when Holzer asked why the notes had been not turned over to his clients as part of their appeal, Moxley answered, “Those are my private notes.”
In another example of the opacity of the process, the November 30 letter from Permits, Applications and Inspections Director Peter Gutwald granting approval – not signed by him, but rather initialed by Moxley – does not explain why the exemption was granted.
The process “is outrageous and it needs to stop,” said the lawyer for the Dulaney Valley Improvement Association at a hearing Wednesday on the appeal the group filed on the committee’s decision.
“That DRC meeting you chaired, that procedure, doesn’t allow the community to have any input or ask any questions at all,” attorney J. Carroll Holzer said, addressing Moxley as the three-member Baltimore County Board of Appeals listened.
Holzer reminded Moxley about Nugent’s objections. But Moxley said Nugent did not address the specifics of the exemption, then went on to defend the process he oversees.
“This is a committee, it’s not a democracy,” Moxley explained, chuckling. “It’s not mob rule.”
“We don’t want mob rule, sir. We want openness. We want clarity” – J. Carroll Holzer.
His comments went over poorly with Holzer, who has been representing communities in developer-friendly Baltimore County for decades.
“We don’t want mob rule, sir. We want openness. We want clarity about what’s been presented,” Holzer said. “So let’s not talk about mob rule.”
“This is so messed up”
Wednesday’s meeting eventually adjourned before all witnesses were called. (It will resume at a date and time to be determined, Appeals Board chair Deborah Dopkin said.)
But over the course of the lengthy proceeding, participants were able to learn more about what Two Farms is planning, and about the “limited exemption” process that has been used to fast-track county development projects for years.
“The law is flawed and favors the developer,” declared Timothy Ruppalt, a Dulaney Valley Improvement Association board member.
“The more we learned about it, the more we said, ‘This is so messed up.’”
Criteria for a Minor Development
A project can qualify as a minor development by meeting any of the following criteria:
• A development without an agreement with the county Public Works Department.
• A development with a Public Works agreement involving only road widening.
• A development in which the improvements are determined by the director of Permits, Approvals and Inspections, to be a “minor development on three lots or less.”
Two Farms’ witnesses and its attorney, Adam Rosenblatt of Venable LLP, described the project and said it “clearly” meets the third requirement as a minor development.
The company is proposing to raze a former credit union building on the site and replace it with a 5,230-square-foot convenience store and restaurant building.
There would be a parking lot with 75 spaces, and a retaining wall that would be 339 feet long and nearly 16 feet high at its highest point. Also planned: 12 parking spaces for Tesla charging stations.
“This development will have to have a public works agreement,” the community’s expert witness, engineer James Patton, predicted.
In his testimony, Patton said it is impossible to tell whether the project could exceed three lots since “there is nothing in the record to show whether the DRC or a a representative from Zoning addressed the issue.”
In his view, the project is not a minor development.
Ruppalt said the appeals board hearing made clear the “vague and imprecise” criteria in county law that allow “capricious decisions” about development projects to be made at the whim of the director.
“What is major? What is minor? Are we talking residential or commercial? How big are the lots – 2,500 square feet or 5 acres?”
“It’s entirely up to this committee and Moxley” to make these decisions, he said.
He said the community objects to the way Two Farms in November was able to submit a “concept plan” that was less detailed than the one they have subsequently provided which shows major improvements.
During the hearing, Holzer continued to probe Moxley about a process that prevents citizen participation and generally ends with a speedy a green light for developers.
Moxley attempted to school him in county history.
“The DRC meeting as an event, as a phenomenon, has existed for decades and the content of those meetings has never changed,” he said.
“As an event, as a phenomenon [the DRC meeting] has existed for decades and the content of those meetings has never changed” – Lloyd Moxley.
While citizens may not participate, Moxley noted, if someone contacts him with a concern about a project, “I will at least in some fashion make the committee aware of that individual’s concerns or questions.”
“What we can’t have is an open-ended event where everyone who wants to, speaks. The DRC was never that,” he said. “From a practical standpoint, the meeting would never end! The DRC is to consider process, not the merits.”
At one point, Holzer asked Moxley, who has worked for the county since 1999, how many projects have been approved via these (b)(8) limited exemptions?
Hundreds, Moxley replied.
Ruppalt called that information chilling, saying, “It makes you wonder, how many projects have gotten in with these exemptions and the community never even knew it?”
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