The Taylor family has roots at least one century deep in Ellicott City — and its brand can be seen all over town.
The family’s holdings include 1,000 residential units on 700 upland acres known as Taylor Villages. Nearby is Taylor Manor, an abandoned psychiatric hospital on 65 hilltop acres they hope to further redevelop.
Ross Taylor, president of the family company, Taylor Place Development Corporation, and general manager of Taylor Property Group, wants to replace the hospital campus with Taylor Highlands, a residential development project with 252 luxury townhouses, apartments and condos.
But the company is facing fierce opposition from residents wary of such projects after flooding in downtown Ellicott City that shuttered businesses and threate ned people’s livelihoods. A 2017 hydrological study showed that development partially exacerbated the devastation.
Adding to the suspicions are financial links between county politicians and Taylor and other developers, who have donated richly to campaign coffers. Many residents of Taylor Villages also feel muzzled by housing contracts that prohibit them from speaking out about future development.
The festering distrust will likely be on display at a public hearing about the Taylor project slated for 7 p.m. Thursday.
While the science employed by the Department of Planning and Zoning indicates that Taylor Highlands will not worsen flood conditions in Ellicott City, because of the distrust the project has found itself at the center of a larger debate around the future of growth and development in Howard County.
A Long-Stalled Project
Taylor Highlands has been mired in legislative changes and moratoriums since 2016.
In 2019, spurred by the recent floods, Howard County strengthened its stormwater management regulations and passed a major update of the Forest Conservation Act, a scenic road bill, and an “alternative compliance” bill that made getting waivers a more rigorous process, said Amy Gowan, director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning.
Every time a bill passed, Taylor Highlands was redesigned to comply with the new regulations, Ross Taylor said.
At least 10% of Taylor Highlands units will be classified as affordable per county requirements, an important local need, said Kelly Cimino, Director of Howard County’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Around 100 of the units will be for residents age 55 and older.
Gowan, of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said that Howard County has “the strongest requirements in the state” when it comes to forest conservation. “It’s pure science,” she said. While that science is complex, it seems that Taylor Highlands “is going to actually improve the flooding conditions.”
But many aren’t convinced.
“I have a hard time believing that,” said Allan Kittleman, a Republican candidate who recently lost his bid for county executive, a position he held in the past. “I was county executive for two devastating floods. And while I don’t think development was the sole cause, I don’t think there’s any question that overdevelopment has been a potential partial cause of that.”
Kittleman is among a handful of politicians and residents who think the regulatory powers in Howard County have been compromised by financial contributions from developers.
“Calvin Ball calls the shots,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth “Liz” Walsh, a vocal opponent of Taylor Highlands. “That department chief, no matter what she may personally want to do, answers to an elected official, who takes gobs and gobs of money that vastly exceeds campaign donation limits.”
The Taylor family has made several political donations this past election cycle, including a total of $11,900 to The Calvin Ball Team in 2020, through their companies Taylor Family Limited Partnership A and Taylor Family Limited Partnership B, according to public records.
Kittleman filed a complaint with the Maryland State Board of Elections about donations he thought Donald Reuwer, a prominent local developer and regular business partner with the Taylor family, had made. The complaint says that Reuwer, his businesses, his family and one of his employees donated a total of over $90,000 to The Calvin Ball Team from August 2019 through August 2022. Because all the donors are listed with companies at the same few addresses shared by Reuwer or his companies, Kittleman believes the donations violate campaign finance limits.
Donald Reuwer made individual donations totaling $8,500 from August 2019 through August 2022, state campaign records show. Kittleman’s complaint points out that total is above the maximum $6,000 limit allowed per election cycle.
Donald Reuwer said he was not aware of Kittleman’s complaint letter. The companies listed in it, which share addresses with Reuwer or his companies, are not all owned by Reuwer, nor do they share enough ownership to subject them to a joint legal limit of $6,000, Reuwer said. “If it was wrong, we’ll certainly look for a refund,” he said. He has already had a personal donation to Calvin Ball refunded after it was caught as surpassing the legal limit, he said.
“Everything comes from the top,” Kittleman said. “I sat in that chair, and if the county executive wants something, it happens.”
Ball declined a request for an interview. A spokesperson said in a statement that Ball tries to find “the best balance of preservation, redevelopment and economic growth” through his Housing Opportunities Master Plan, and that residential development has substantially slowed down in Howard County since 2019.
There are also concerns about the Taylors using their influence to remove trees illegally. Trees help prevent flooding.
While the Taylor family was fined $18,000 for illegally removing 72 trees — the largest such county fine ever issued — the family received a waiver approving the removal of those trees in 2017, said Gowan. But the trees were felled before final site plan approval, which Ross Taylor said was an unclear requisite from the Department of Planning and Zoning.
The Taylor family also received a waiver to remove 13 specimen trees from its Taylor Highlands and Gatherings at Taylor Place developments in 2021, according to public records.
“For many years, the community has felt that certain developers definitely have a lot of influence, donate a lot of money and get preferential treatment in the County system,” Lisa Markovitz, Founder and President of The People’s Voice, said in an email to The Banner.
Waivers are hard to come by, Joshua Feldmark, administrator for the Office of Community Sustainability, said in an email. “Our new Forest Conservation Act actually does more to promote and preserve forests than any other jurisdiction in the state,” the email said. But some residents still think they’re granted too frequently.
Criticism also exists for the 75-foot forest conservation buffer Ross Taylor requested along College Avenue, rather than the standard 100-foot buffer, to shield nearby residents from noise or visual distractions from Taylor Highlands. Some residents think the road is already overdeveloped.
“Every development that is successfully approved over there seems to make [College Avenue] less and less scenic, and more ‘Oh hey, it’s a bunch of houses,’” a resident of Taylor Villages told The Baltimore Banner. They requested anonymity due to fear of retribution.
Will Taylor Highlands make floods worse?
The Taylor family doesn’t think that their development will cause more flooding. They say they understand the concerns, particularly of downtown Ellicott City residents, because they had over a dozen properties destroyed by the flood. They have taken precautions, they said, so their developments wouldn’t contribute to more flooding.
“Private development today is going to reduce stormwater that hits Ellicott City,” said Bruce Taylor, Ross Taylor’s father and president of the Taylor Properties Community Association, Inc. “And the county needs all of the private development it can get.”
“According to my engineers, they feel confident that [Taylor Highlands] is going to actually improve the flooding conditions, based on the computations, and these new requirements, and the fact that there’s already all this area that’s impervious that’s not being treated at all,” said Gowan of the Department of Planning and Zoning.
The remnants of Taylor Manor are a mess of abandoned roads, buildings and parking lots that urban planners call impervious surfaces, which shuttle rainwater downhill rather than allowing the soil absorb it. Taylor Highlands, meanwhile, would employ modern engineering to prevent rainwater from cascading towards Main Street.
Forests are almost always better than residential stormwater management when it comes to mitigating floods, said Matthew Baker, a professor of environmental science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Natural forests have a thick layer of organic matter that acts as a giant, earthy sponge to hold rainwater and reduces flooding. “Typically, developers, when they clear the soil, they scrape the surface layers off the soil to level it for construction,” Baker said. “And that removes the organic layer that accumulated there for hundreds of years. That is where a lot of the biodiversity happens.”
But the Taylor family has no obligation to plant a forest. The land is already zoned for residential development.
Some residents wish to oppose Taylor Highlands but are afraid to, according to emails obtained by The Baltimore Banner.
One email, sent to Councilwoman Liz Walsh by a resident of Taylor Villages, said that Bruce Taylor has threatened residents against communicating with the Department of Planning and Zoning. Citing a clause on page 92 of their housing contracts that prohibits discussing the project, he allegedly threatened fines, lawsuits and possible eviction. Bruce Taylor denied that this ever occurred.
A second email from a different resident said: “As you may know, Taylor Property residents have this [clause] in their purchase documents and we can’t afford a lawyer to fight it. So we cannot go public with our concerns.”
One resident of Taylor Villages, who requested anonymity because of the clause, said Dr. Bruce Taylor discouraged people from protesting by saying “I wouldn’t do that because you’re prohibited from doing it, and can be sued if you do.”
“And he wasn’t lying,” the resident said. “That’s exactly what it says. If you object to these things, you are subject to a lawsuit.”
“As a single homeowner and senior, there’s no way I could take him on legally,” they continued. “The legal fees will be enormous.”
While the clause may seem like an infringement of the constitutional right to free speech, “there is no clear answer,” said John C. Murphy, an attorney. “These clauses are used today, in many transactions,” he added, saying only a court ruling could decide if this clause is enforceable.
When asked if he would ever enforce the clause, Ross Taylor said: “We’ve never had to. I don’t know. I don’t know if we could, or if we would, but we have never had to.”
“We have hoped never to need to enforce it,” Bruce Taylor said. “I’m not sure that there would be any great help in trying to enforce it. People are gonna say whatever they want to say.”
Thursday’s public hearing will be an important forum for the community, as it will address concerns including flood mitigation, school capacity and scenic road protection. And possibly, an acknowledgement of the residents who would like to attend — but are afraid to.
The article incorrectly stated that the Taylor family was in the process of receiving a waiver to remove 72 trees. They received that waiver in 2017. The article has been updated to reflect that fact.
This article previously stated that, compared to the Taylor Manor campus, Taylor Highlands will not make floods more common in Ellicott City and may make residents safer, attributed to Amy Gowan. This paraphrase has been replaced with a direct quote from Amy Gowan.