Baltimore’s Planning Commission met last week to hear testimony about a proposed townhouse development in the Clipper Mill community, but what Mark Saldich really wanted to talk about was the developer.
“I would like to speak to the character of Valstone Partners and Larry Jennings,” he began, referring to Valstone’s principal. “My interaction with them has been less than pleasant.”
Commission chairman Sean Davis cut him off, saying the Planning Commission wasn’t a place for personal attacks and asking him to stick to comments about the project itself.
“If you’re going to talk about someone’s character, I don’t know that this is the place for that,” Davis said.
But Saldich, a resident of the Millrace Condominiums at Clipper Mill, had more to say about Jennings.
“When he bought the property, he lied to the parking commission–”
“Sir, again, if the purpose of your comment is to attack the character of any person, I want to cut that off,” Davis said.
But Saldich, eventually echoed by other witnesses, was insistent with his theme.
“From our dealings, the community’s dealings, with the developer, he has misrepresented his position and outright lied to the community and that’s why there is so much opposition to this,” Saldich went on. “It’s because he has handled us so poorly.”
Davis was growing exasperated. “I understand – clearly that has been an issue. I just don’t want to engage in that. We’re a planning commission. A planning and zoning commission. Let’s respect that.”
What the PUD Allows
Saldich was one of several community residents who came to air grievances about Jennings and Valstone, the group seeking approval to build 30 townhouses in place of a parking lot at 2001 Druid Park Drive, a parcel known as the Poole & Hunt lot.
The residents and their lawyer also came with legal arguments.
Under the Planning Unit Development (PUD) zoning arrangement that guides development at Clipper Mill, final design approval from the Planning Commission is required before the city can issue a building permit for the project.
Residents said the proposal would have to go before the City Council because Jennings was proposing major – not minor – changes. Their attorney, John Murphy, made a slew of specific objections in an hour-long presentation.
Davis: “It’s as nondescript as it could possibly be, which would lead me to say, ‘Okay, anything here could be redeveloped.”
Murphy cited, for example, 2003 minutes from the Planning Commission itself approving the Poole & Hunt building with the condition that parking for it would be provided by that lot. Developer’s attorney Jon Laria said the document was being misinterpreted and dismissed it as “a gotcha.”
In the end, following staff recommendations, the commission voted unanimously to give final design approval to the plan for townhouses at 2001 Druid Park Drive. The PUD, panel members said, permits it.
At one point, Davis had chided a resident who had testified that the townhouse plan goes against the original idea of retaining the historic flavor of the onetime textile mill and manufacturing hub.
Had he been buying into the neighborhood, Davis told her, he “would have researched the PUD. And what I would have learned was, ‘I don’t know what the hell this thing says.”
“In terms of what could happen in the future, it’s as nondescript as it could possibly be,” he said, “which would lead me to say, ‘Okay, anything here could be redeveloped. Literally anything could be torn down and redeveloped.”
List of Grievances
In spite of Davis’s efforts to keep the three-hour hearing focused on the merits of the plan, by the end it turned into one big tattle session about Jennings.
The developer has bumped up against residents before as he has undertaken multiple projects in the area, a focus of intense development pressure in recent years.
The residents said Jennings has refused to listen to their concerns. That he barred them from using a parking lot they had used for years. That he had the city install a parking meter in one location as a “punitive” measure.
They especially expressed frustration with the shortage of parking at Clipper Mill, saying the community will lose 47 spaces if the townhouse project moves ahead, but Jennings wants the townhouses anyway.
“Meetings with the developer have been flavored to tell us what they’re going to do, rather than try to find some way to compromise on some issues,” said Woodberry Community Association president Sheri Higgins.
“Often with Valstone, we have not been heard, or we felt like we have not been heard,” said Clipper Mill resident Sandy Goolsby.
Jennings, who spoke in favor of his project at the beginning of the meeting, got up and left halfway through the session, trailing a suitcase behind him and giving the panel a salute from the back of the room.
He wasn’t there to hear the panel’s deliberations. And he did not respond to any of the residents’ complaints, which were so intense the commission members each made a point, before their vote, of wagging a finger at the now absent Jennings.
Call for More Civility
Commissioner Thomas Prevas started off, saying “I identify with the community.”
“It’s unfortunate, and I’d like to see more civility between parties generally,” Prevas said. “That doesn’t change at all my analysis, which is a legal one, but it just, I think, makes for a better city, when we can get along.”
“I also would ask Valstone to sit down and talk with the community,” said panel member Talib Horne. “Also I would ask the councilperson of that particular district to again try to come to some consensus.”
“I’m not sure they’re doing themselves or anybody else any favors, from what I’m hearing in the room, by not being a very good neighbor,” added Marianne Navarro, the mayor’s representative on the panel.
Waxing philosophical, panel member Victor Clark Jr. observed “We are an old city, an old city that is changing into a new city, and as we change we are going to have pinch points.”
Davis, noting that “clearly there is some bad blood,” suggested that the developer try to work with the community and perhaps offer up another parking lot after business hours.
“I can’t demand that, but I can request it,” he said.
After the vote, Murphy expressed disappointment and said he would need to consult with his clients about whether to appeal the decision in Circuit Court.
“I think the law is pretty clear” in their favor, he said.
Jared Block, a Clipper Mill resident who stayed to hear the final vote, said he didn’t think the panel members were listening to the testimony.
“It seems like they made up their minds before the meeting,” he said.