By Nick Rynes
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Nearly 50 people gathered in West Towson Wednesday to protest the removal of 30 trees at the site of a proposed Royal Farms convenience store and gas station.
Members from the surrounding community were encouraged to wear orange clothing to represent their mascot, “The Lorax,” from the popular Dr. Seuss book. Small tree stumps were brought as well to represent the trees that were cut down just four days earlier to make way for the Towson Station project, which was formerly named Towson Gateway.
Demonstrators said the protest also served as a memorial to the 30 lost trees at the site on the corner of Bosley Avenue and York Road.
“Trees offer a tremendous benefit to the community,” said Amy Rehkemper, a certified professional organizer from West Towson who was part of the demonstration. “It’s pure corporate greed coming in wanting to clear nature and trees for a gas station. Trading trees for concrete? It’s truly insane.”
The County Council approved a resolution last December that would allow Caves Valley Partners to purchase the site of an old fire station at 800 York Road from the county and build an upscale commercial center with a Royal Farms gas station and convenience store.
Caves Valley needed the council’s approval as a Planned Unit Development, or PUD, because the 5-acre property is not zoned for gas stations. A PUD is a zoning designation that gives developers more flexibility in what they can build on a site in exchange for them providing certain benefits to the community.
Opponents of the project said they were upset because contractors cut down 30 trees from the property last Saturday even though the plans for the Royal Farms have not been approved yet.
Protesters also said that seven of the trees were considered specimens, or trees that have a base of 30 inches or more when measured 4.5 feet from the ground.
“The county thinks, ‘We can do whatever we want,’” Councilman Wade Kach, R-District 3, said during the demonstration. “They need to follow their own zoning laws. Tearing down the building [old firehouse] was a good idea, sawing down the trees was over-the-top. It saves the future owners from going through the county process and expense to get permission to take these trees down.”
Caves Valley did not respond to a request for an interview.
Ellen Kobler, a spokesperson for the county, would not answer any questions from a reporter about the tree removal.
Instead, she issued an email statement on Wednesday saying that the site is being cleaned and prepared for sale. The statement said that any new development proposal would require a landscaping plan, which would “likely include many more trees than were there before.”
Residents have been opposed to the project since 2012, when County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proposed selling the property. In 2013, the council adopted a plan to sell the land for $8.3 million for a Royal Farms retail center.
Opponents say the gas station will cause more traffic in an already congested area while possibly harming the health of students in the nearby Immaculate Conception, a private Catholic school for children in pre-school through eighth grade.
Under the resolution approved by the council in December, the developers would provide a $44,000 contribution to NeighborSpace of Baltimore County, Inc., which would use most of the money to improve the West Towson Trail. Other benefits provided by the development would include new trees throughout West Towson and two solar-powered speed display signs on Stevenson Lane, one west and the other east of York Road.
In addition, the resolution requires the developers to preserve the “existing forest habitat buffer” between the gas station and the Catholic school’s playing fields.
During Wednesday’s rally, protesters said they were offended by the tree removal.
“The plans to put a gas station here really burned us,” said Ron Gallop, a Towson resident and active supporter of the Green Towson Alliance (GTA). “The firehouse that was here gives a better sense of community as people enter Towson here at the gateway.’’
Gallop, along with many others in attendance, stressed that traffic is already a problem in the area. He said traffic will only get worse if a gas station is built.
Matt Crenson, a retired political scientist and a long-time resident of West Towson, said the tree removal felt like a cheap shot to him and the community.
“It was pure arrogance,” Crenson said. “I’ve lived here for 46 years and to add another gas station here is just degrading. No need for it at all.”
“This is just ramrodding by the county government and business to push something that the community doesn’t really want,” said Mark Lee, a realtor from West Towson. “This is a representation of the Towson Gateway? An army of gas station pumps? There’s no vision, there’s no creativity or vision.”