BALTIMORE — To keep 24 mentally ill people out of his condominium complex, a prominent Glen Burnie developer canceled a $1.4 million sales agreement and even offered to build them homes elsewhere, witnesses testified in federal court yesterday.
Developer Frank J. Scott said he didn'trealize he was selling 12 condominiums to house the "severely" mentally ill when he signed a contract with Omni House last winter. The non-profit rehabilitation program and one of its clients have charged Scott's company, Cromwell Fountain Associates, with housing discrimination.
During a 4 1/2-hour hearing in U.S. District Court yesterday, witnesses for Omni House testified the agreement was abruptly revoked amid fears of patients "going berserk" and endangering residents of Cromwell Fountain.
Dozens of worried condominium owners called the management company to complain, prompting a series of meetings that ended with a hand-delivered letter canceling the contract, said Lois Miller, executive director and founder of Omni House.
Cromwell officials argued that they only backed out of the deal after Miller expressed concern about the uproar and agreed to settle for another site. They also said they lacked proof she had lined up government grants topurchase the units.
But Judge Marvin J. Garbis picked apart the financial argument. When John Pantelides, who heads management and sales, said the developer was willing to build the same condominiums forOmni House at another site, Garbis pointed out financial concerns couldn't have played a key role.
"So you weren't worried about the financing. You were worried about the (negative) publicity?" he askedPantelides.
Pantelides said he considered the project "commercial" after reading a newspaper account that said 16 of the 24 clients were "severely" mentally ill and would need round-the-clock supervisionwhen they moved to Cromwell Fountain.
"Severely mentally ill conjures up moving a ward with all the attendants," Pantelides said.
Cromwell Fountain's attorney, James C. Praley, continued the "ward" analogy by emphasizing that all 12 units are in one building. By providing 24-hour supervision, Omni House would turn the building into a "large group home," he contended.
Susan Giraldi, coordinator of special programs for the state Mental Hygiene Administration, objected tolabeling the building a "group home." Only two clients would live ineach condominium, classifying them as "alternative living arrangements" under state guidelines, she said. She also pointed out that eightof the clients already live in apartments Omni House leases in Glen Burnie.
James G., the 27-year-old patient at Crownsville Hospital Center who filed suit with Omni House, listened intently as the attorneys argued over his future. After spending nearly two years in an institution, he wants a chance to move into a real home and lead a normal life.
"I think we should be allowed the chance to get out," he said in an interview following the hearing. "I want to get a job and maybe get married someday. I want to do all the things everybody elsedoes."
His mother said James suffers from manic depression, a relatively common psychosis characterized by extreme mood swings. He washospitalized following a breakdown and is on medication now. He is the youngest of seven children, she said.
Miller said she decided to sue Cromwell Fountain Associates after the developer canceled the sales agreement without finding another suitable site. Scott called a meeting eight days after the state Board of Public Works approved a $750,000 grant to underwrite most of the purchase price.
In a deposition taken by Omni House's attorney, Susan Nathan, Scott acknowledged he expressed concern that "future sales might be jeopardized." But he said Miller was equally upset by the public outcry and feared moving patients into a "hostile environment."
Nathan and Beth Pepper, an attorney with the Washington-based National Mental Health Law Project, emphasized that Cromwell Fountain officials never mentioned financial obstacles until they canceled the contract.
The lawsuit claims that Cromwell violated the federal Fair Housing Act by breaching its Dec. 20, 1990, contract and seeks unspecified damages for "economic loss, emotional distress and deprivation of civil rights."
Garbis ordered that a restraining order prohibiting Cromwell from selling the condominiums remain in place while the trial continues. The next hearing is scheduled for May 28.