Staff Commentary

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun by Dan Rodricks • Aug 25, 2023 at 12:50 pm 

If he can find time, Gov. Wes Moore might want to take a ride to Sykesville to deploy his big smile, positive nature and power of persuasion to resolve a bitter dispute between the Carroll County town and a developer. I mean, why not? There’s a legitimate place for the Maryland governor or his housing secretary in the Sykesville mess.

The state still has an interest in what happens on the grounds of the old Springfield Hospital Center, a Maryland institution that once housed and treated people with mental disorders.

Under a previous governor, Parris Glendening, the state conveyed a large parcel of Springfield, known as the Warfield complex, to the town. That happened in 2002, with a disposition agreement that emphasized the Smart Growth ideals Glendening championed during his two terms in Annapolis.

The agreement noted Sykesville’s desire to redevelop Warfield as “principally an employment center/office park,” but it allowed for other uses as well, including residential development that would accommodate people of different income levels.

I mention that because housing is central to the dispute between Sykesville and Warfield Historic Properties LLC, the group that paid the town $8.2 million for the parcel in 2018.
The development, Warfield at Historic Sykesville, prioritized the restoration of 19th-century buildings on the property and the development of office and retail space and townhomes.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

The market for new office buildings and retail space dried up while the need for affordable housing, or workforce housing, grew.

In December 2021, the Warfield group requested permission to build less commercial space and more affordable workforce housing. That’s where things got messy.

A hearing in May 2022 on the developer’s request produced the tired, coded claims that workforce housing would change the “character of the community” and lead to more crime. A former Sykesville mayor warned that outsiders with federal housing vouchers — he actually referred to them as “those people” — would be “coming to our schools and our towns.”

For Timothy Maloney, the attorney representing the developer, that sentiment reflects the reason the town wants to now reclaim the historic Warfield properties from his client.
“‘Those people’ are precisely who the town leadership seeks to exclude from living at Warfield,” he says. “It’s why they are willing to walk away from $30 million in federal and state tax credits for housing and revitalization. And it’s why they are trying to take the property back — to keep ‘those people’ out of Sykesville. Sad to say, it’s the driving force behind all of this.” Mayor Stacy Link disagrees. “The Town would welcome affordable housing if it were proposed in a thoughtful, well-planned development,” she wrote in an email. “The plan the developers showed creates pockets of different housing types with the affordable component pushed to the back of the property instead of being incorporated throughout an accessible and inclusive mixed-use development. Our main issue was with the design of the project and its purely residential concept.”
Link said the town plans to address affordable housing in other ways, through “inclusionary zoning practices and relaxed regulations on accessory dwelling units,” the latter the subject of my Aug. 25 column.

But Steven McCleaf, a principal in the Warfield group, is not convinced. “Affordable housing of any kind was certainly not a pillar of the platform of either Mayor Link or her predecessor,” he says. “Despite a well- demonstrated shortage of affordable housing, the town has failed for decades to address the issue.”

On June 9, 2022, Ken Holt, in his final year as Secretary of Housing and Community Development, convened a meeting at Sykesville Town Hall to try and get local officials and the developers to work toward a resolution. It failed.

“The town never would even discuss a different range of housing mixes,” McCleaf says. “They essentially shut down communication with us.” Two weeks later, the Sykesville Town Council rejected the developer’s request for more affordable housing. Then, in May of this year, the town took steps to reclaim property from the Warfield group, charging that
the developer had failed to pay for the agreed-upon stabilization and preservation of nine historic buildings.

“This inaction,” said Sykesville Town Manager Joe Cosentini, “leaves the Town with two options: continue watching the buildings be demolished by neglect until they can no longer be saved or exercise the remedies available to the Town from the original sales contract, including reversion of the historic buildings to theTown’s ownership. The Town has chosen the latter.” Maloney filed a counterclaim, charging that Sykesville officials acted in bad faith with his client, and seeking damages. His filing says the town’s motivation for taking the property back is “opposition to affordable housing and animus toward residents of affordable housing.”

More than 140 houses, priced between $300,000 and more than $500,000, are mostly completed and already sold, and McCleaf vows to continue working on some elements of the project.
But litigation over the historic buildings has scuttled the partnership’s plan for workforce housing. Maloney says no other developer or lender would touch a project focused on office, commercial and retail space. “And residential development,” he says, “requires the kind of substantial support that the state was willing to provide.”

The relationship between the town and the Warfield group might have become too bitter to be saved. But, given the state’s historic interest in the place and the need for affordable housing, the governor might want to offer personal mediation. I mean, why not?

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