Following a town council meeting earlier this month which left some of University Park's elected officials feeling as if they had been deceived, town leaders had harsh words for the legal team representing the company which wants to redevelop the Cafritz property.
"I am not comfortable with what happened," said Mayor John Tabori during last night's University Park Town Council meeting. "I will probably never be comfortable with it."
This latest round in the ongoing Cafritz saga began two weeks ago, when University Park's town council members prepared to review a preliminary plan of subdivision up for consideration at a special session on Jan. 14.
In the hours before that meeting, the Cafritz developers, Calvert Tract, LLC, submitted three letters of approval to town council members which, to the untrained eye, were attributed to the president of the adjoining American Center for Physics (ACP), the mayor of Riverdale Park, and a county economic development official.
In fact, each of the three letters had been composed by lawyers for the Cafritz property. They had been intended, according to an interview published in The Diamondback with Cafritz attorney Chip Reed, to serve as draft stand-in documents pending the actual approval of their respective attributed authors.
Two of the letters, attributed to ACP President Beth Cunningham and Riverdale Park Mayor Vernon Archer, were marked "draft" but bore no other outward indication that they were written by Cafritz attorneys.
ACP's support for the project is seen as crucial, because it is the site where developers plan to build a bridge to span the CSX railroad tracks which line the eastern border of the Cafritz property.
The third letter, attributed to Thomas Himler, deputy chief administrative officer for the Prince George's County Office for Budget, Finance and Administration, was marked only "memorandum" and bears no outward indication that it was written by Cafritz attorneys.
Each of the three letters were dated Jan. 14. Each was composed in a different font. None bore a signature.
The letters arrived in council members hands only hours before the meeting. Later that week, developers had hoped to take the letters, along with the sought after support of the University Park Town Council, before the Prince George's County Board of the Maryland-National Capitol Park and Planning Commission which would consider approving the Cafritz preliminary plan.
However, the members of the University Park Town Council assumed the letters were written by the authors attributed on the pages.
Reed, according to reports, argued that he was up-front with the town council about the nature of the documents from the outset.
“I got up and stated emphatically that I drafted this letter,” Reed told The Diamondback. “I do not represent the American Center for Physics; I don’t speak for the American Center for Physics.”
When it was discovered that the letter of support from ACP was, effectively, a placeholder, outrage ensued.
Councilor James Gekas (Ward 2) was taken aback.
"Personally, I was surprised," said Gekas last night, echoing a nearly unanimous sentiment from the University Park town council. "I did think it was a done deal. I thought they were going to meet their contingencies, and it was a total flip of the coin."
A report issued by the Prince George's County Planning Board staff dated Jan. 10 recommended "disapproval" of the Cafritz Preliminary Plan of Subdivision, saying that key conditions had not been met. On Jan. 15, Cafritz representatives announced to the College Park City Council and the Riverdale Park Town Council that the developers would be pulling their application off the planning board's agenda that week because they had been unable to work out an agreement with ACP.
Reed's announcement had been preceded by an actual letter from Cunningham who wrote that it would likely be several months before ACP would make a decision about to support the placement of a bridge on its property.
"The ACP Board is angry that a letter was provided at the Monday, January 14th, meeting of the University Park Town Council, which erroneously appeared to present ACP’s support for having a roadway across our property," wrote Cunningham "That letter was never reviewed or authorized by the ACP Board."
Transparency, Reform, Oversight Called For
University Park's elected officials were still sorting it out last night.
The brouhaha has inspired calls for reform of the planning board application process and greater oversight by town officials.
Councilor Arlene Christiansen (Ward 3), with Tabori's support, asked the town council to submit a letter to county officials lobbying for changes to the way applications are handled and considered by the planning board. Under Christiansen's proposal, any applications must be submitted in full 30 days before the planning board could consider the applications. A similar law has been in effect in Montgomery County since 2007.
Tabori said that he has also insisted that developers provide important documents to the town council well ahead of town council meetings.
"I don't want to have anything coming in less than 10 days before a council meeting," said Tabori. "I don't care what it is, I want 10 days."
Tabori also wants Reed to apologize to the University Park town council, a move supported by Christiansen.
"I really do believe we were mistreated," said Christiansen. "If we are to have any good faith going forward, we need to hear an apology."
Tabori said that developers plan to refile the preliminary plan with the planning board within the next 120 days.