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University Park Mayor Wants Cafritz Apology

Mayor, town council call for reforms and greater oversight after confusion over authorship of letters of support for controversial development.

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."

Drafty Documents

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. 

Outrage Ensues

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.

s February 05, 2013 at 01:24 PM
As a person who comes from generations of real estate developers I find your statement “But do we need to sell our souls to the developers just to get a nice grocery store” totally insulting. You are implying that real estate developers are the devil. I don’t see life that way. The Cafritz have owned that plot of land for decades. Over 50 years I believe. It is their land. They are not the devil; in fact they are considered one of the most philanthropic families in the Washington DC community. Yes Mike you are right, development can be done badly. Much like anything, but doing business is not evil. Yes the document thing was questionable? Yes, but dear lord Mayor grow up, don’t cry like a baby. University Park is being totally unprofessional in this process. As a municipality that is totally residential it is clear they have little experience playing with the big boys. So I suggest they just stay on the porch. If everyone loves the trees so much, then make a fund and buy the land. If you pay enough they will sell it to you. What I want is a supermarket I can walk to that is not suburbia ghetto like the Giant on 410.
Mike Derry February 05, 2013 at 03:22 PM
Scott, No offense intended... but having spent most of my life in baltimore and Harford counties... I have seen development "done badly" resulting in a loss of open spaces and major congestion, poor thought to traffic patterns, ect... The situation in the Arts District is another example... there is not adequate parking for the number of folks using those shops...Then the knee jerk response by putting parking meters in along route 1... especially right at Jefferson... which is a major intersection. I've been screaming about that for months, now that is has happened... folks are starting to complain on the list serve... I'm not totally anti-devlopment... but it needs to be done smartly,... everything needs to be above board.... and the community should be involved in the process... we are not talking about developing large trtacks of farmland in the middle of nowhere... but rather a major development in an already congested area with older neighborhoods that have their own charm and history.... as a community we should be involved in preserving that.... I'll give you a couple of expamples...
Mike Derry February 05, 2013 at 03:49 PM
continued- I work at a 160 year old historic hospital in Towson... several years ago we sold land to Towson university. for apartments .. as part of the deal however we had say into the architectual design of the buildings... They wanted them to blend/match the design of the Hosp....they also wanted to make sure certain structures and tracks of land were preserved... as well as preserving mature trees and requiring new plantings... Same with Towson Place (the old eudowood shopping center) next to the 60 years old Brick townhome neighborhood of Loch Raven Village... as part of the re-development the neighborhood association required that developers try to match the feel of the neighborhood... even down to determining the color and style of brick that was used... I remember months of negotiation before the Neighborhood association would sign off on the reconstruction...That is a community having direct involvement over what kind of development is in their area... It would be nice to see that level of involvement and oversite...
s February 05, 2013 at 04:17 PM
I love the parking on Rt. 1. Saturday evening I parked right in front of elevation burger got a meal and was home in 3 mins. I like to walk when it’s not cold. I don't see the problem. There has always been a plan for the city to build a parking garage in the area and now that the development is taking off they are working on it. I just don't see why the development is bad. I love it and would not have bought a home and spent $50,000+ in renovation if it was not being built. I would have bought in MoCo. I can spend my paycheck anywhere and took a risk in PG County. Gas Tax=Purple Line=better public transportation. Rt 1 and 410 are congested because there are no other thru streets. They must be used to get anywhere. RI Ave needs a straight shot to Beltsville (never going to happen). UMD needs a link to 495 and 95N via the truck weigh station (never going to happen). Riverdale Park needs more ways to cross the CSX track and needs to bury the tracks straight thru town to make a more livable community (never going to happen). Hyattsville needs to connect Queens Chapel and Rt1 somewhere other than 410. When that was suggested with one ways on Queens burry and Ogelthorpe the community about peed themselves. Community involvement is good and needed as is good leadership. I think the community is involved in the Whole Foods development. I mean look they just go the project shut down and back to the drawing board.
Mike Derry February 05, 2013 at 06:09 PM
Scott, The route 1 parking is certainly convenient... if you are parking !!! but if you are driving down route 1 or trying to turn left or right at Jefferson it is a nightmare... it is the worst place to lose two lanes.(one in each direction ) .. Jefferson is a highly used cut through road... The traffic lights are short as it is... and the left turn lane into the shopping area (at Jefferson ) is pretty short as well and backs into the left lane of route 1..... what you get is a bottle neck of traffic coming up to that intersection... beside the bottleneck I'm fearful some poor soul who has parked on route 1 is going to have their car run into... or worse yet be hit by a car... i've already seen some near misses as cars do not realize the diving lane ended and jammed on their brakes and swerved....If I remember corrctly there is no on street parking north of that area all the way up to the beltway... it is two driving lanes each way...cars are not anticipating those lanes ending... I'd certainly never park along there

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