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.
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.
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.”