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Montgomery planners grant more time for Takoma Park development proposal fought by Md. comptroller

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/15/2021 Katherine Shaver
a person holding a sign in front of a building: Cynthia Mariel, 69, has shopped at the Takoma Park co-op for decades. And now she’s fighting to prevent development of the adjoining parking lot, where the Maryland neighborhood grocery store gets its deliveries. © Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post Cynthia Mariel, 69, has shopped at the Takoma Park co-op for decades. And now she’s fighting to prevent development of the adjoining parking lot, where the Maryland neighborhood grocery store gets its deliveries.

Development plans in Montgomery County often spark opposition from nearby residents, but a building proposed for Takoma Park and considered by county planning officials Wednesday has faced an unusually powerful challenger: Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot.

The state’s Democratic chief financial officer lives around the corner from the proposed development site and met about it twice with Maryland’s current transportation secretary, Gregory Slater, when Slater was state highway administrator, according to state emails obtained by a development supporter via a public-records request. State highway officials would later consider the developer’s application for a delivery truck pull-off area on a state road, which is critical to the project advancing.

The developer needs the pull-off area, known as a “layby,” on Carroll Avenue (Route 410) for trucks that would serve the proposed commercial building and the adjacent Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op grocery store — part of a county requirement for adequate loading space. The co-op’s delivery trucks now use the 1.2-acre city-owned parking lot where the two-story building would be built.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has rejected the loading area, citing concerns over pedestrian safety and motorists having enough time to stop safely for trucks pulling out.

The Montgomery County Planning Board granted the developer’s request Wednesday for more time — until Jan. 20 — to try to change SHA’s mind, saying the agency had not clearly explained why it had rejected the application. In testimony, Takoma Park resident Seth Grimes raised the possibility of Franchot’s “untoward intervention,” and an attorney for the developer told the board that SHA’s slow and “ambiguous” responses were “completely unprecedented” in her 20 years as a land-use attorney.

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Planning board chair Casey Anderson said he had “no doubt” the development proposal would “be approvable” if SHA signed off on the loading area.

“We’re not attempting to impugn anybody’s motivation or guess what may have been in their heads,” Anderson said of SHA. “We want to just understand more clearly the rationale for their decision.”

Erin E. Girard, an attorney for the D.C.-based Neighborhood Development Co., said SHA responded to the layby request in April, more than two years after the developer applied for it. She said the agency’s responses were “not factual,” as if the engineers who objected had not read the application.

She told the board the developer has asked to meet with Slater and SHA Administrator Tim Smith “to say: ‘Something is going on here. We’re talking past each other.’ They’re not acting like they do in every other development that they do in Montgomery County.”

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Maryland transportation officials and Franchot’s office said the comptroller had no influence on the highway administration’s decision to reject the layby for safety reasons.

Franchot meets with state and local officials about many issues outside his immediate purview, said his spokeswoman, Susan O’Brien. It was “insulting to the professionals at State Highway,” she said, for supporters of the project to suggest the layby was rejected for reasons other than a “fact-based analysis.”

“Just as elected officials and stakeholders who were supportive of the project did, the Comptroller met with state and county stakeholders to communicate the concerns of the overwhelming majority of Takoma Park residents who were strongly opposed” to the development, O’Brien wrote in an email.

Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the agency rejected the loading area based on its own “thorough analysis,” as well as Montgomery transportation officials’ “safety concerns.”

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Henson said Slater and an SHA district engineer attended a community meeting on the development proposal with Franchot in 2018. She said Slater met with Franchot again in 2019 to “share an update” on SHA’s study of the area. That study was “agnostic” on the layby question and focused on long-term improvements for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists in Takoma Junction, the business district where the proposed building would go.

She said that residents at the community meeting “voiced concerns” about the loading area and that delivery drivers worried about having to park in the street when it was full.

The city council solicited development proposals for the parking lot in 2014 to revitalize the business district — a half-mile east of the Takoma Metro station — in a way that would be “contextually sensitive and environmentally sustainable,” according to city and county documents.

However, the winning proposal, which includes office space above several stores and restaurants, has drawn a slew of criticism. Opponents in Takoma Park, a hotbed of liberal activism, said it would be too big for the area, consume public gathering space, spur gentrification and generate too much traffic. Many have voiced concerns about the viability of the 40-year-old co-op, a place that Franchot has publicly championed. The co-op filed a lawsuit against the developer and the city over the proposal in April, alleging breach of contract.

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But some supporters of the project questioned the potential effects of Franchot’s interest, citing his power over state agencies from his seat on the Board of Public Works, which approves most state contracts over $200,000.

Franchot’s meetings with SHA officials were reported Monday by Takoma Park residents Carter Dougherty and Neal Cohen in a piece published on the website Medium. Dougherty, who said he supports the proposal, obtained state emails via a public-records request. They included three from Franchot staff members to Slater — two asking for meetings about the development and one seeking a “project map” that Slater had shown to Franchot in a previous meeting.

Dougherty and Cohen wrote that the emails showed Franchot had played a “highly inappropriate role” and “repeatedly interfered in the Takoma Junction revitalization process for what he perceived to be the benefit of a business located a stone’s throw away from his own home,” referring to the co-op.

None of the emails show that Franchot asked SHA to reject the loading area. In an interview, Dougherty said, “there’s really nothing else to discuss in that context with the State Highway Administration. … The layby was the issue here.”

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Dougherty cited a July 2019 email from Franchot’s then-chief of staff, Len Foxwell, to Slater asking whether Slater had five minutes “for a question that has NOTHING TO DO” with the Takoma Park proposal or a pending highway project but “is still important to Peter.” Dougherty and Cohen wrote that it showed “Foxwell was apologetic about having come to Slater so many times about this little development in Takoma Park.”

In an interview Tuesday, Foxwell, now a political consultant, said Franchot asked him to “check in from time to time” with Slater for updates on the SHA study. (Foxwell’s consulting clients include former Maryland attorney general Douglas F. Gansler, who is running against Franchot and seven others for the gubernatorial Democratic nomination.)

“It’s no secret that Peter was pretty worked up” about the development’s potential effects on the co-op, Foxwell said. “His opposition to the project as proposed was pretty well known throughout Takoma Park.”

Foxwell referred questions about what Franchot discussed with SHA officials to the comptroller’s office. However, he said, he disagrees with any assertions that Franchot had undue political influence on SHA’s decision to reject the loading area.

“Having worked with Greg Slater on a number of projects over time,” Foxwell said, “I have full confidence in the integrity of the study process and in the work product.”

Danielle Newman contributed to this report.


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