County Resident Says Cohen Is Cozy With Deep-Pocket Priest's Point Developer/Contributor ~ Annapolis Capital Punishment

Saturday, October 3, 2009

County Resident Says Cohen Is Cozy With Deep-Pocket Priest's Point Developer/Contributor

THIS IS A LONG POST..../The below is an opinion piece sent to CP by Chris Groobey, who lives just outside of Ward 2 in the county. His original email to me about this issue was unsolicited. The issue he describes was unknown to me until he sent them. The piece here is what he sent to me after I asked him to put all his concerns into a piece for publication. When I received that, I sent it to Josh Cohen for his comments. I did not investigate or write this story nor can I vouch for its veracity. Cohen said I could use an email he had previously sent to Groobey answering his concerns. That email response is included at the end of this column. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of Chris Groobey. It began with an unsolicited email on September 24 as follows:


"We don't know each other but I've recently become a reader of your blog. Have lived in Annapolis for ten years so clearly I've missed some good stuff.

I don't know if the below is of any interest to you but to me it's instructive of what the citizens of Annapolis might face if Josh Cohen is elected mayor. He's planning on introducing legislation at the county council that benefits only one person in allowing that person to build a mansion and family compound on environmentally sensitive land that is currently zoned as open space. Coincidentally or not, the person is a real estate developer who is represented by a developer-side lawyer who is a significant and frequent contributor to Cohen. Never mind that the lawyer and his client have already lost this exact issue in March 2003, when an administrative hearing officer rejected for all the right reasons (community opposition, environmental preservation, etc.) a variance to build on the land. But now, having lost when trying to do things the proper way, the developer has turned to Cohen to write special-purpose legislation that benefits only him and that overrules the administrative hearing result and the continued opposition of the neighborhood. I've not heard of legislation like this in the past, and maybe I'm behind the curve on that, but it certainly smells to me.

I've read in your blog about Cohen's prevalence out of area and real estate industry campaign contributions. Apparently they are working and Cohen indeed deserves his reputation as being developer-friendly. It's one thing when that relates to commercial development being placed where it is supposed to be under existing zoning laws. It's quite another when it's hurting a neighborhood that he won't even represent any more if he becomes mayor and relinquishes his county council seat. Kind of like midnight pardons just before the inauguration."
A week later, Groobey produced this detailed article for publication:

Voters in the City of Annapolis will have a preview of Josh Cohen's leadership style and priorities at the County Council meeting the evening of this Monday, October 5. It will be at this meeting that Cohen will reveal his decision whether to sponsor a piece of legislation that will benefit one person (a real estate developer based in Philadelphia, locally represented by a lawyer who is a frequent and large campaign contributor to Cohen) over the objections of the surrounding residential community and various other stakeholders, including the environmental community. The land at issue is in the "county" portion of Cohen's council district so Cohen has no concerns about how the affected voters will be impacted since they can't help him achieve his goal of being mayor of Annapolis. In contrast, given Cohen's history of accepting significant campaign contributions from out-of-state contributors and real estate development interests, it will be telling if he proceeds with his legislation since it will be an indication of how his decisions can be influenced by campaign contributions and tilted toward non-residents.

The facts are as follows:

1.The land at issue is informally known as Priests Point. It is an approximately 17 acre parcel that for decades was owned by the Redemptorist Order associated with Saint Mary's Parish and used as a recreational facility. It is among the last and largest undeveloped parcels of land along the Severn River and is located on the north side of the mouth of Weems Creek (the county side of Weems Creek, across the Creek from the Wardour neighborhood in the City).

2. In 2004, the Redemptorist Order sold Priests Point to a real estate developer who lives in Philadelphia. Many local residents, St. Mary's parishioners and stakeholders had attempted for years to either purchase the land from the Order or convince the Order to preserve it for the benefit of the community. Unfortunately, the Order ignored these efforts and sold to the developer. The publicly reported purchase price was $850,000, which struck many observers as low for a 17 acre waterfront parcel on the Severn. Some believe that the purchaser made additional donations to the Order in connection with the sale. Many St. Mary's parishioners are still disappointed with their church leadership (who are based in New York City) for placing profit over the best interests of the community.

3. The developer is represented locally by a prominent, developer-side lawyer who has given frequently to Cohen's campaigns (indeed, he appears twice in Cohen's most recent disclosure report, both times for relatively significant amounts compared to most other contributions made to Cohen's campaign). The developer himself does not appear in Cohen's disclosure reports, although between the lawyer's donations and the large number of donations made to Cohen's campaign from anonymous limited liability companies (many of which are clearly real estate development partnerships), it's hard not to imagine who has Cohen's ear on this and similar issues.

4.Most of the land is zoned as "open space." Without going into the details, land zoned "open space" has very limited development options, none of which includes residential uses. Rather, its purpose is to "preserve lands and recreational uses and protect persons and property from floods and pollution." This zoning was in place when the purchaser bought the land and he was clearly aware of the limitations on the land when he bought it.

5. Importantly, a relatively small portion of the land (at the end of Riverview Avenue) is zoned R-2. This means that the developer can build one or two relatively modest houses on this portion of the property. Houses of this sort would be in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood and the neighbors would have no objection if the developer were to proceed in this manner. The vast majority of the remaining land would remain "open space" and undeveloped, as intended by the zoning designation.

6. However, two small houses away from the water is not what the developer wishes to construct. Rather, plans submitted to the County show that he wishes to build a 13,000+ square foot mansion, pool, pool house, tennis court, stables and various other outbuildings in the open space portion of the land. Needless to say these plans would result in significant clearing of the land (including to create waterviews that do not currently exist) and environmental damage. Construction could be expected to last many years, placing stress on the neighborhood in the form of traffic, noise and non-residents coming through the neighborhood on a daily basis. The neighborhood is otherwise a quiet one on a dead-end street. Neighbors are worried about the impact on traffic, speeding and dangers to children and pets.

7. In connection with the purchase of the land, the developer and his lawyer sought a variance in 2003 to permit development of the open space as outlined above. A coalition of neighbors, environmental groups and other stakeholders, supported by various City and County officials, opposed the variance application. After a full and fair hearing at which all sides were heard in a public setting, the County's hearing officer denied the variance request. The developer proceeded with purchasing the land even after his variance request was denied.

8. The normal route to attempt to overrule an adverse decision by a County hearing officer is to appeal it in court. The developer and his lawyer must not have liked their chances in court because they have not appealed the decision. Rather, they have turned to Councilman Cohen to introduce special-interest legislation that benefits only one person (the developer) and that, if passed, will eventually lead to the rezoning of the "open space" portion of Priests Point and, ultimately, to the developer being allowed to construct his family compound on land that has for decades served as undeveloped land that benefits the entire community.

9. Needless to say, the same people (neighbors, environmentalists and others) who opposed the development of Priests Point in this manner during the variance proceeding now oppose the special-interest legislation now being contemplated by Cohen. We thought we had won in the proper venue for determining matters of this sort (the variance proceeding) and are now surprised to have our own Councilman seek to overrule by special-interest legislation what has already been determined by a county hearing officer to be in the best interests of the community.

The neighbors and other stakeholders who are opposed to this special-interest legislation would greatly appreciate the support of your readers. If you agree with us that the interests of an entire neighborhood and community should outweigh the interests of an out-of-state real estate developer who purchased land knowing that he would not be able to build as he wishes but who now wishes to overrule a county hearing officer with special-interest legislation, please write Councilman Cohen at and urge him not to introduce the legislation at Monday's Council meeting.

Moreover, Councilman Cohen's actions on Monday evening will be instructive to Annapolis city voters in the upcoming mayoral election. In particular, if Cohen introduces the legislation, then it would be fair to assume the following about the leadership style and priorities that Cohen would bring to his role as Mayor of Annapolis:

First, that he values the views of out-of-staters and campaign contributors over the views of his current constituents (perhaps especially since, if elected Mayor, he would no longer represent or need the votes of those constituents).

Second, he believes it is appropriate to introduce legislation that benefits only person at the expense of the entire surrounding community.

Third, he believes it is appropriate to change by legislation decisions already properly made by officials who do not depend on campaign contributions for their livelihoods and whose decisions are reached only after full and fair participation by all involved in an open setting.

Fourth, he thinks it is appropriate to take land currently zoned as "open space" and repurpose it so that it can be used for private family compounds without regard to environmental damage or impact on the surrounding community.

In contrast, if Councilman Cohen decides not to introduce the legislation, then perhaps he really is the friend of communities, environmentalists and locals that he says he is.

Dislosures: the writer of this article lives down the street from Priests Point and has been involved with these proceedings since 2001. As a County resident, he can not vote in the Annapolis mayoral election and has not supported any mayoral candidate with either time or money. But, also as a County resident, his quality of life will be impacted by the actions of the future mayor and he hopes that Annapolis voters will keep this in mind when electing their next mayor.
This is Cohen's Sept. 24 response to a communication from Groobey and others. Cohen, as stated above, has given CP permission to use this as his repsonse here:
Dear Chris,

Thank you for copying me on your email. I will disregard the inflammatory language in what you wrote and focus on the substance of the issue at hand.

Two years ago I convened a group of stakeholders to discuss the land use designation and zoning of Priest Point. This group included neighbors of the property and representatives from watershed and neighborhood associations. My sense was that there was a general consensus to support Scott Peterson's development plans which call for building a mansion in the center of the property where there is already a clearing. This development proposal is preferable to what the existing zoning allows, namely to cut down existing woodland and build two dwellings. In my view, this is a situation where the existing zoning actually works against the more environmentally sound use of the property.

I have been clear from the start that I will only consider such a change if there is a consensus from the watershed and neighborhood associations affected. My willingness to consider this change is because of its public benefit, not its benefit to the property owner.

I contacted Scott Peterson again this morning and reiterated to him that I will only introduce the amendment with the support of the stakeholders affected. The ball is in his court to work out whatever written agreement or contract may be necessary for the stakeholders to reach the comfort level they need to support it. Without that support I will not introduce the amendment.

I do want to correct a factual error in your email. Scott Peterson has not contributed one penny to my campaign. Even if he did, my record shows that I always pursue what I believe to be in the interest of the community and the environment.

Priest Point is a sensitive topic and understandably so. It is to everyone's benefit that we maintain a respectful tone that encourages a meaningful discussion of the issues.


Joshua J. Cohen
Councilman, Sixth District
Anne Arundel County Council

LISTEN TO CP Publisher Paul Foer on 1430WNAV at 8:15 every weekday morning.

Join us every Thursday morning, from 8-9 am for our Sip N' Blogs normally at ZU Coffee, 934 Bay Ridge Road, Annapolis, Maryland, in the Giant Shopping Center. Special guests will be:
Oct 8--Mat Silverman, Ward 5
Oct. 15--Josh Cohen
Oct 22--Chris Fox (at Sly Fox Pub)
Oct 29--Dave Cordle
Stop by on your way to work for your morning latte and meet other local activists. Zu now has a drive-through window!


tlh said...

My Goodness Paul it seems that it was just days ago when you were hyperventilating over what you considered unfair online blog charges against another candidate for mayor and now it seems that you have turned your blog over (at times) to exactly the same kind of false charges that you so very recently railed against.

I truly don't think its right for someone to charge a candidate with a financial "quid pro quo" like Chris Groobey did here, when the financial record shows there was nothing like that whatsoever.

Don't you think if that if a charge like this is false that you should remove said accusation from your blog.

Just a thought...

Paul Foer said...

In a word, no. Where are the false charges? The writer is an articulate and involved resident who makes a well reasoned argument. It is not a legal opinion but his opinion,(and I believe he is a lawyer by trade) as was duly noted. Some will agree. Some will disagree. I have already published Cohen's response along with the original post and a rebuttal from Jamie Benoit, so again, where are the false accusations? If I took your "logic" one step further, this would turn into a refereed, peer-reviewed scientific journal.

tlh said...

I was referring to the campaign contributions that your commenter wrote about and Josh said in his reply - he never received.

All I know about this - was what I read on your blog.

Kudos on publishing the Councilman Benoit's response - that wasnt posted when I wrote my comment.

Paul Foer said...

I wrote the following in a foreword: "I did not investigate or write this story nor can I vouch for its veracity."


tlh said...

Hey we come here to read YOU anyway - so there!

Paul Foer said...

we are a forum...

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be late to this conversation. Tim, I tried to be very clear about the contribution trail. I agree that the owner of the property is not listed on Cohen's recent mayoral campaign contribution reports; I never said he was. However, the lawyer who has been representing the owner since 2002 or so on this project does appear multiple times.

(Paul, I will drop you the names of the owner and lawyer in an email in case you want to add them to this post, don't know your thoughts on that.)

Best regards,

Chris Groobey

Anonymous said...


Sorry you didn't care for my post, and sorry also to be late to this conversation.

Just to clarify, I never said the owner of the property contributed to Cohen's campaign.

What I did say is that the owner's lawyer has made numerous and relatively large contributions to Cohen's campaign, as detailed in the various campaign finance reports. I don't know if Paul wants me to list the lawyer's name here but I'm happy to provide it privately if you drop me a note at so you can research for yourself.

Contrary to Cohen's and Benoit's assertions, I don't believe law firms or other businesses make campaign contributions out of the goodness of their hearts. They do so to enhance their standing with candidates in the hopes that, when those candidates assume office, their phone calls will be taken, viewpoints considered, etc. It's the same for individuals who make contributions; you don't send a donation to someone whose policies you don't support. So if you are a developer-side law firm, you send your money where you think it will make the biggest difference for your developer clients.

Also don't forget the large number of contributions to Cohen's campaign made by anonymous limited liability companies that, fairly clearly, are real estate development partnerships. Don't you wish you knew who those people really are and what they are trying to develop? You and I don't know, but I bet Cohen does. Personally I wish all contributions for races such as this were required to be positively identified as to the donor but unfortunately that's not the case.

When elected politicians start saying contributions aren't made to influence them, in my view that's when they become more of the problem and less of the solution. I don't know Jamie but find his background very impressive and I certainly respect and honor his service to our country. I just wish he would recognize at least the impression, if not the reality, of influence over legislators gained by campaign contributions by business interests.

It's also why I made clear in my post that, since I'm not a city resident, I have not provided money or time to any of the mayoral candidates. I don't have a horse in this race, just trying to protect my neighborhood.

tlh said...

my misreading and my apologies - but lordie if we have to be responsible for not only our deeds but also the scheming deeds of our lawyers...!!!...oh my!

i DO believe Josh to be a terrible decent and honest fellow - but I do applaud and respect your involvement, activism and concern for your neighborhood and environment.

my sour tone was totally due to my mistaken misreading...again, my sincerest of apologies.

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