Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot and the Takoma Junction Project

Carter Dougherty
8 min readSep 13, 2021

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By Carter Dougherty and Neal Cohen

The Montgomery County Planning Board, which has a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 15, should delay the approval process for the Takoma Junction development. Then, it should investigate and make sure that the key decision — that of the State Highway Administration, to reject the loading/unloading concept known as a lay-by — was not tainted by undue political interference and was, in fact, based solely on expert analysis.

The Planning Board is chartered to act independently and that is all we are asking this Board to do: exercise its independent professional judgment. It seems difficult to imagine that grocery stores in cities such as D.C. and NY, can have large semi-trailers offload safely outside their facilities using lay-bys, but that somehow tiny Takoma Park, Maryland cannot make this happen. The reason it is not happening here seems pretty clear: Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot.

All available evidence suggests that Franchot, the second-most powerful official in Maryland, and current gubernatorial candidate, has repeatedly interfered in the Takoma Junction revitalization process for what he perceived to be the benefit of a business located a stone’s throw away from his own home. He has leaned on city officials, county reviewers, and state agencies — all involving a development project that is less than 100 yards from his front door on Sycamore Avenue in Takoma Park. It all stinks to high heaven.

This effort has had everything to do with his own selfish, personal preferences about a grocery store that caters to upper middle class residents, and very little to do with the merits of this small proposed development.

Open Secret

Some years ago, while Takoma Park was debating what to do at Takoma Junction, and how to revitalize the underused slab of asphalt at the intersection of MD-410 and Carroll Ave., one of the opponents of the development casually mentioned the trump card that they had in their hand.

The underused parking lot that Peter Franchot wants to preserve

“Peter Franchot has told us that the State Highway Administration will never approve the lay-by,” she said to a friend. An open secret! We know of this utterance because a supporter of the development was standing there when she said it. (It’s a small town folks; be careful where you flap your gums!)

The comment was a small window into a bigger effort by Franchot.

The approval of the lay-by through the State Highway Administration (SHA) is now the main stumbling block to finally getting actual building done at Takoma Junction. SHA rejected the current iteration of the lay-by (a loading/unloading concept involving a cutout in the road so trucks can stop without backing up traffic) in April, when the Takoma Park City Council was on the verge of approving the revised site plan. From there, it was to go to the Montgomery County Planning Board, whose approval would open the door to building permits and, finally, building. After 7 years of debate, it was high time.

Leaning on Local, County, and State Officials

Now the Planning Board is considering whether to grant Neighborhood Development Company (NDC), the firm that now has a 99-year lease on the Takoma Junction property, an extension on its application, or whether to deny the extension and reject its application altogether. But before they do any of that, they need to consider Franchot’s highly inappropriate role in the whole process.

At a minimum, we need to know more about Franchot’s role at the city, county, and state levels before the Planning Board rejects either NDC’s application, or its request for an extension. And in particular, SHA needs to reveal more about exactly what Franchot (and his staff) said to them and what they told him. It’s time to shine a light on the process involved for a transportation project that was supposed to have a straightforward, expert-level review, not sustained resistance from a powerful state official doing favors for a high-end grocery store near his own home.

Franchot has been a public voice in support of the neighboring Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op, which is officially neutral on the question of the development, even though opponents of it constantly invoke the Co-op’s name in their protestations. In 2017, Franchot obtained a $500,000 Maryland state grant for the Co-op (it’s a matter of public record), an odd allocation of taxpayer money given the Co-op’s steady cash flow and the fact that Takoma Park, far from being a food desert, is surrounded by grocery stores.

Franchot Promises a Fight

In December 2016, Franchot had already appeared at the store to make a baldly political statement: “I’m not term-limited, and I will be here, and I am going to be someone that you can come to with any problem.” In the context of the moment — just after Takoma Park signed a development agreement with NDC — Franchot was clearly promising to use his influence not as a customer but as Maryland comptroller to fight the development. And that’s what he did.

Takoma Park City Council members have said publicly that Franchot contacted them during the long city process for approving the site plans for the development. What’s less appreciated is that Franchot privately applied pressure to terminate the development outright, while dangling the idea to council members that he would get money from the state so the Co-op could buy the neighboring parcel, instead of a private developer. Former Takoma Park Council member Rizwan Qureshi felt compelled to address Franchot’s pressure during an October 2017 council meeting, saying that he was “shocked” to get a call from the Comptroller offering this deal in explicit terms.

That pressure wasn’t just odd, like the grant Franchot got; it was absolutely inappropriate. But it didn’t stop there.

After securing the grant in 2017, Franchot had a meeting* with Casey Anderson, the chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board in January 2018. From what we’ve been able to learn, Franchot waltzed in expecting to throw his weight around and squash the development but was completely unbriefed on any of the details. It ended inconclusively. Mr. Anderson behaved appropriately. Not so Franchot.

Pressuring SHA Repeatedly

Franchot continued to pressure other agencies involved in the process, and none appeared to be more vulnerable to his wrath than the State Highway Administration, which was run by Greg Slater until he was promoted to Maryland secretary of transportation in December 2019.

In his call with former Takoma Park council member Qureshi, Franchot said he’d spoken with people “much higher up” in the state administration, and boasted that he met with someone from the state Department of Transportation “every two weeks,” Qureshi reported.

Through a Maryland public records request, we have obtained documents that indicate Franchot involved himself in SHA’s review of the Takoma Junction project at numerous points. Given Qureshi’s statement, in all likelihood, what we got in writing is a fraction of what went on. But consider:

● In December 2017, Franchot demanded a meeting with Slater and the relevant engineer for the Takoma Park region “to discuss the Silver Spring-Takoma Park Co-op.”

● In January 2018, Franchot’s staff thanked Slater for a recent meeting and asked for a copy of a map Slater had used because “the Comptroller preferred that version to the one we are currently using.”

● In August 2019, Franchot demanded a meeting with Slater “to receive an update on the Takoma Park Junction” [sic].

The most revealing email was one dated July 1, 2019 in which Len Foxwell, a longtime, now former, adviser to Franchot, writes an email to Slater asking for a time at which he can speak to Franchot “for a question that has NOTHING TO DO [sic] with … the Takoma Junction.” The tone was clear: Foxwell was apologetic about having come to Slater so many times about this little development in Takoma Park.

Not Comptroller’s Role

Clearly, Franchot had a bit of an obsession. And let’s not kid ourselves about what Franchot’s interest in the subject would have conveyed to state officials. The comptroller is an influential figure, and Franchot’s gubernatorial ambitions were well-known. Any official would have found Franchot’s interest intimidating. (When speaking with Takoma Park’s Qureshi, Franchot casually mentioned a Maryland mayor “whose political career was ruined” by pushing too hard on a development project. Nice.)

Check out the Maryland Comptroller’s website and you won’t find anything about a role in private development projects, or transportation; it’s an agency concerned with fiscal probity. The Comptroller is also a member of the Maryland Board of Public Works, a fairly unique institution among state agencies charged with “ensuring that significant State expenditures are necessary and appropriate, fiscally responsible, fair, and lawful.” It’s hard to see how a half-million dollar grant to a grocery story in an extremely gentrified neighborhood falls under any of these responsibilities, to say nothing of Franchot’s repeated demands to SHA and Slater.

The Planning Board staff is currently recommending that the board, at its meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 15, reject NDC’s application and its request for an extension. That would be a mistake.

The rationale is the lack of approval by SHA, and, by extension, the lack of approval by the Takoma Park City Council, of NDC’s current site plan. The City rejected the NDC plan because SHA had not approved the lay-by. But the staff recommendation is premised on the notion that NDC got a reasonable, expert-driven consideration of its plan at the state level. However, Franchot interfered repeatedly in the SHA process, as part of a broader campaign to subvert the development.

No Respect for Democracy

Franchot’s actions also show a breathtaking lack of respect for the local democratic process in Takoma Park. The City Council voted repeatedly to advance the project. And Mayor Kate Stewart, who has shown endless patience in shepherding the project through years of twists and turns, won the 2020 mayoral election by a nearly two-to-one margin against a Franchot-endorsed candidate whose bid was built around the issue of ending the Takoma Junction project. Still Franchot pushed state agencies privately to do what Takoma Park voters, through 4 different city city elections, refused to do: kill the development.

The Planning Board owes not just NDC but the public a delay in the approval process so that we can all learn more about Franchot’s role in SHA’s decision. And then maybe, just maybe, this small development project on a tiny plot of land, long delayed for so many pointless reasons, can finally get a fair and impartial hearing.

*This post has been updated to link to the comments of Planning Board Chair Anderson, who confirmed on Sept. 15 that he met with Franchot in the presence of staff, and that Franchot expressed opposition to the Takoma Junction project.

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Carter Dougherty

Journalist for 20 years, been to Africa, Europe and back. Into my two kids, DIY home improvement, running and bourbon.