Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. appeared to give a wealthy Baltimore developer special treatment to build an indoor tennis facility when his top aides accelerated key zoning approvals despite opposition from the permits department, according to a review by the county’s inspector general.

The project, a massive indoor tennis facility that developer David Cordish wanted to build on his Greenspring Valley property, was initially blocked by county permits department staff who said the building was too large to be an “accessory” structure. Instead, county staff argued Cordish would need to go before an administrative law judge to secure a variance which would open the door for opponents to testify against his project.

Eventually, the head of the county’s Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections reluctantly allowed the tennis facility project to move forward without the variance hearing. Inspector General Kelly Madigan’s report concluded that more than 100 projects similar to what Cordish had proposed required an administrative law hearing and that the expertise of county permit staff was ignored. The report noted that some key staff in the permitting department believed the Office of the County Executive had blessed the project, but Madigan found no evidence that was the case.

But Olszewski’s office denies a building permit was issued at all, contradicting Madigan. His administration says members of the executive office weren’t aware that part of a building permit approval had been attributed to them. The tennis facility was never built.

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“A building permit was never issued, and as such, we believe this assertion that appears throughout the report is in error,” the administration wrote in a response included in the report.

Cordish is the chairman and CEO of The Cordish Companies, a Baltimore-based developer of casinos, sports entertainment complexes and office space across the country. The Cordish Companies own the office space leased by The Baltimore Banner.

Cordish, 82, first proposed the facility, dubbed a “tennis barn,” in early 2020. The 15,000-square foot structure would house two tennis courts and an observation gallery. During an initial review, county staff told Cordish the project would require public hearings.

Cordish and his attorneys objected to the county’s interpretation of zoning laws. Cordish reconfigured parts of the plan, but continued to push back against county staff to reconsider their decision that the project was too large to be built without a public hearing.

The senior staff in charge of reviewing development proposals “uniformly were of the opinion” that the tennis barn needed to go to a special hearing because its proposed size would be larger than Cordish’s residence, Madigan wrote.

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The permits staff and then-permits director Michael Mallinoff resisted approving the building permit even after the county’s real estate attorney, Amy Grossi, argued that the hearing wasn’t required, according to emails first reported by The Baltimore Sun. In another email, Mallinoff told Grossi that under the interpretation of zoning law made by Cordish’s attorneys, few accessory structures would require an exemption.

In a November 2020 email, Mallinoff wrote that he felt he was “being directed by others who have, I believe, made up their minds regardless of the merits” of the project.

“I cannot recall ever having to continually address special arrangements for certain people. Every week. And I am not new in this business,” he added. Madigan does not name Mallinoff or Grossi in her report, and both have since left the county.

Madigan’s investigation also found the county fast-tracked the sediment erosion control plans for the tennis barn in early 2021 — ahead of 33 other projects waiting to be reviewed by the Soil Conservation District. Madigan concluded the project didn’t seem to meet the standard of other projects typically prioritized for review.

In a February 2021 email to Grossi, development manager Lloyd Moxley wrote that he expected Cordish to call him about scheduling the tennis barn for priority review by the Soil Conservation District. The project didn’t appear to serve any “greater good” to justify prioritization, Moxley wrote.

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“I’m not sure this rises to that BUT it seems Mr. Cordish has the [County Executive]’s support,” Moxley wrote.

The soil conservation plans were approved the following month. Madigan noted there was no evidence that Olszewski wanted the project prioritized, nor any indication that Moxley, whom she refers to as “the development manager” in her report, tried to verify with the administration that it wanted the tennis barn fast-tracked. February 2021 emails indicate Moxley prioritized the review before learning that an Olszewski advisor had apparently recommended against doing so.

Madigan includes transcribed portion of an interview with “the development manager” explaining how the tennis barn would benefit the public.

“I’m thinking well his … you know, his good health is, is healthy for Baltimore County,” the manager said. “For everybody that either works for him building these places or works for him employed in the places that he controls. You know, it’s just a good thing, and, and it didn’t … it wouldn’t hurt nobody.”

In a written response to Madigan’s report, County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers wrote that the administration agreed the prioritization was inappropriate, although no officials intervened to delay the review once it was fast-tracked. Rodgers said the permits department in October implemented a new process to determine which soil conservation plans should be designated for priority review.

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Ultimately, facing inquiries from Olszewski aides and Cordish’s attorneys, Mallinoff relented.

“I am not convinced,” he wrote to Grossi in November 2020. “I do not feel comfortable signing off [on the permit]. I may need to delegate that to you as originally constructed.”

The approval was filed with the sign-off of Deputy County Administrative Officer Drew Vetter and Grossi instead of Mallinoff. Rodgers wrote that members of the executive office don’t have access to the permits tracking system, and that Vetter’s and Grossi’s names were added to the approval without their knowledge.

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While Madigan said Cordish hasn’t proceeded to build the tennis barn, the building permit was active “for a period of time” and “may still be active as of the date of this report,” she wrote.

Cari Furman, spokeswoman for Cordish Companies, said in an emailed response to The Banner that Cordish abandoned the project last year.

“Mr. Cordish hoped to build a tennis court for his family’s use but, to his disappointment, never received a building permit,” Furman said.

Rodgers said Madigan’s assertion that the building permit was granted was incorrect, and stresses it was Malinoff who ultimately approved the zoning portion of the building permit application. Madigan noted, however, that Mallinoff would not sign his own name, and only approved the permit with the caveat that it was greenlit under the advice of Vetter and Grossi.

Olszewski’s administration will consider possible policy changes regarding special hearings “that will bring clarity to these types of situations in the future,” Rodgers wrote.

“Regarding the appearance of preferential treatment, the Administration reaffirms our commitment to the avoidance of any actions that give such an appearance,” she continued.

The county administration expects county employees to handle all issues fairly and equitably, Rodgers wrote, no matter “who brings the issue to our attention.”

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Taylor DeVille covered Baltimore County government for The Baltimore Banner with a focus on the County Executive, County Council, accountability and quality of life issues affecting suburban residents. Before joining The Banner, Taylor covered Baltimore County government and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun.

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