Let­ters roil plans to bring Whole Foods to Pr. Ge­orge’s

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MI­RANDA S. SPI­VACK

The let­ters weren’t on of­fi­cial let­ter­head, they bore no sig­na­tures, and some were marked “draft.” But to Heidi Sorensen and other mem­bers of the Univer­sity Park Town Coun­cil, they cer­tainly seemed au­then­tic.

The three let­ters — all pur­port­edly from prom­i­nent lo­cal of­fi­cials — en­dorsed a devel­op­ment plan that would bring Prince Ge­orge’s County its first Whole

Foods su­per­mar­ket and pro­vided new de­tails on how the full project would be fi­nanced and built.

The coun­cil mem­bers were sur­prised when the de­vel­oper’s at­tor­ney, who had pro­vided them with the let­ters, said at a re­cent meet­ing that he had writ­ten them — not the peo­ple whose names were on them.

“I find it very mis­lead­ing,” Sorensen said to the at­tor­ney, Chip Reed, ac­cord­ing to a record­ing of the Jan. 14 meet­ing. “We re­ceived this in our packet tonight. ... I would never have as­sumed that you wrote it.”

The Town Coun­cil then voted against the mixed-use devel­op­ment. The peo­ple whose names were on the let­ters — a nearby

mayor, an aide to Prince Ge­orge’s County Ex­ec­u­tive Rush­ern L. Baker III (D) and an of­fi­cial from a neigh­bor­ing re­search fa­cil­ity — dis­avowed the let­ters the next day, with one be­ing de­nounced as a “fab­ri­ca­tion.”

Reed de­clined to com­ment on

the project. Jane Cafritz, the de­vel­oper, said the in­ci­dent was the re­sult of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“We tried, I guess, to act too quickly,” Cafritz said. “I think it was just a mis­un­der­stand­ing. I think we have tried very, very hard to be trans­par­ent and have a di­a­logue with the com­mu­nity.”

The episode is just the lat­est in a long saga for a project that would bring 995 hous­ing units, a 120-room ho­tel, 22,000 square feet of of­fice space and about 168,000 square feet of re­tail space to Route 1 south of Col­lege Park.

Cham­pi­oned by Baker (D), the project has been en­vi­sioned as the type of up­scale devel­op­ment that res­i­dents say they crave and that many have com­plained has long been ab­sent in the ma­jor­ity-African Amer­i­can county of nearly 1 mil­lion peo­ple.

Last year, af­ter marathon hear­ings be­fore the county’s plan­ning board and the Prince Ge­orge’s County Coun­cil, a re­zon­ing plan for the project was ap­proved. But in early Jan­uary, the staff of the county plan­ning de­part­ment re­jected a de­tailed plan that Cafritz had submitted.

Af­ter that re­jec­tion, Reed tried to reach out to the nearby com­mu­ni­ties of Col­lege Park, Riverdale Park and Univer­sity Park, hop­ing they could help him get the devel­op­ment back on track.

While the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties do not have for­mal veto power over the project, the plan­ning com­mis­sion and the County Coun­cil have paid close at­ten­tion to their views.

Be­ing mind­ful of this, Reed had e-mailed the let­ters to Univer­sity Park as the coun­cil meet­ing was about to con­vene. When it was clear that the coun­cil mem­bers thought the let­ters were gen­uine, he cor­rected that im­pres­sion.

“This is just me,” he said, ac­cord­ing to the record­ing of the meet­ing. “We need that let­ter. If we don’t come up with that let­ter, we can’t go for­ward. I am just try­ing to pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity here for the coun­cil to re­view a draft let­ter and per­haps you could be com­fort­able with it.”

Still, the episode has left some hard feel­ings.

Ar­lene Chris­tiansen, who heads the Univer­sity Park coun­cil com­mit­tee mon­i­tor­ing the progress of the deal, wants Reed to apol­o­gize for­mally. “I do be­lieve we were mis­treated,” she said.

The peo­ple whose names were on the let­ters were also trou­bled.

Tom Him­ler, the Baker aide whose name was on a let­ter promis­ing pub­lic fi­nanc­ing, “al­most went through the ceil­ing” when he heard about what hap­pened, ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity Park Mayor John Rogard Ta­bori. Him­ler said in an e-mail that the let­ter was a “fab­ri­ca­tion.”

Of­fi­cials at the Amer­i­can Cen­ter for Physics, lo­cated next to the devel­op­ment project site, were also dis­turbed that a let­ter was submitted to the coun­cil on their be­half.

“That let­ter was never re­viewed or au­tho­rized by the ACP Board,” Beth Cun­ning­ham, pres­i­dent of the physi­cists group, wrote to the three com­mu­ni­ties af­ter learn­ing of the draft let­ter that went out un­der her name.

Ver­non Archer, Riverdale Park’s mayor, said in an in­ter­view that he was aware that Reed was draft­ing a let­ter un­der his name but that he had not seen it and had not ap­proved its con­tent.

“We tried, I guess, to act too quickly. I think it was just a mis­un­der­stand­ing.”

Jane Cafritz, de­vel­oper

Cafritz, who is in­volved in a devel­op­ment dis­pute in North­west Washington, with­drew the plan from the Prince Ge­orge’s plan­ning de­part­ment the day af­ter the Univer­sity Park coun­cil meet­ing. Since then, how­ever, she has said her com­pany will re­sub­mit it.

For Ta­bori, who is back­ing the project, the let­ters were a low point. “If I had car­ried the rage that I had to this day, I would have had a heart at­tack in be­tween,” he told coun­cil col­leagues.

“My anger, I had to let it go.”

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