Proposal to transform abandoned hospital into aid center is criticized Neighbors are unhappy with agency's proposal

October 12, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A humanitarian agency with plans to lease an abandoned state hospital in Marriottsville will face an uphill battle with the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission.

Harvest International Inc., which expects to begin a 15-year lease Wednesday, plans to renovate Henryton Hospital -- 18 aging buildings on 50 acres -- into an international aid center.

Without local zoning approval and appropriate licensing for its programs, the organization will not be able to move forward with an ambitious $5.6 million project, which initially would include a food bank, homeless shelter and job-training program for recovering substance-abusers.

"They cannot obviate planning and zoning rules," said Eugene R. Lynch, state secretary of general services. "If they make no progress, they cannot buy the property, and it is back on the market."

The organization plans to raise all the money needed for its City of Hope, a three-phase project expected to take nine years. At the lease's expiration, Harvest International has an option to buy for $1.

"We want to partner with the community in changing lives," said Samson Doolin, director of the Owings Mills organization. "Many of our staff will be your neighbors and family."

The group must first petition Carroll County to rezone the conservation land, but the organization is unsure of what zoning application would apply to run its operation. Henryton, built in 1923, predates the county's zoning.

County Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown called the proposal "incredibly evasive" and predicted an uphill battle for the project.

"I cannot believe at this point Harvest International has not studied local zoning ordinances," Brown said. "How can they sign a lease that is not contingent on zoning approval? We are not going to help them figure it out."

Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll Republican who has supported the project, said planning and zoning hearings would offer a more appropriate forum for airing concerns about the project.

"Harvest International has every legal right to pursue their intended use of the property through zoning," Haines said. "You all can testify and call your own expert witnesses. The zoning board can add limits or totally turn down the project."

Doolin and state officials organized a meeting between Harvest International staff members and a hastily impaneled 14-member citizens advisory board Thursday at Springfield Hospital Center to discuss zoning and other issues. It drew about 75 Marriottsville residents, who turned the session into nearly four hours of complaints, accusations and threats.

Anthony Cirri, a new Carroll County resident who lives in Sykesville, said he moved to the country to escape the problems associated with a city.

"It is not that you are not doing good works," Cirri said. "But, you are moving the city problems into our back yard. Our fears are not quelled."

And, fears will not be allayed with vague answers and a lack of specifics on the project, said Elisa Rusonis of Marriottsville.

"You are breeding distrust," she told Doolin. "We want an honest relationship that does not keep the community from the decision-making process."

Tom Marney, also of Marriottsville, said the project "will introduce dangerous populations into a rural area" that lacks a local police force.

Carroll County relies on the state police force's resident-trooper program for law enforcement. In South Carroll, state police often rely on Howard County and Sykesville police for backup.

"The issue is safety and security for our families," said resident Michael J. Balhoff. "You are asking us to accept a generic lease with a generic plan. If I asked investors to do the same, I would lose my job."

Several residents demanded a 60-day delay to the start of the lease, which was signed last month. Originally, the lease was to take effect Oct. 1. Doolin agreed to delay it to Wednesday but has not said whether he would agree to a further delay.

Presentations from Doolin's side did little to dispel the tension. Residents complained about a lack of specifics and were particularly concerned about drug addicts attending City of Hope programs.

The programs would serve local and area clients, but Thom McKee of Marriottsville said, "I am hearing Carroll County, but I am seeing West Baltimore."

The lease proposal, which requires Harvest International to pay the state $5,000 annually for the next 15 years, has "more holes than the Titanic," McKee said.

"Your vision is clouded by the philanthropic effort," Larry Yeager of Marriottsville told state officials. "You took the first live fish that jumped on the hook."

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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