Possible uses for campus studied

Officials suggest closing Crownsville hospital

Facility is part of 633-acre plot

Neighbors, ecologists oppose residential use

October 12, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

A proposal to close Crownsville Hospital Center has Anne Arundel County officials scrambling to study possible uses for the 633-acre site, one of the last expanses of open land in the county.

Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini recommended selling the mental health facility - and relocating its 200 patients to other facilities - in a report released last week. The move would save the state $5.3 million a year.

If Crownsville closes, Anne Arundel County elected leaders, conservationists and nearby homeowners say they want to be included in talks to determine the future of the sprawling property.

County Executive Janet S. Owens, who has said she is concerned about the future of the site and the hospital's patients and workers, has asked her staff to study property zoning and boundaries so that they will be prepared for whatever action the state takes.

Sale of the hospital - part of an effort by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to reshape the state's psychiatric hospital system - will be discussed during the General Assembly session that begins in January. Del. David G. Boschert, a Republican from Crownsville, has vowed to try to save the site from the auction block.

County officials aren't waiting for a signal from the state house. "Our staff is working on an amazing set of issues concerning this property," said Owens in a written statement released Friday. "We are trying to determine who owns what, investigate the infrastructure and figure out zoning to be as prepared as possible to make the most informed decision if the state comes to us with an offer for this land."

Although owned by the state, the Crownsville Hospital Center is home to myriad county and non-profit entities, including a public school, police department satellite station and food bank. If the Board of Public Works opts to sell the land, it would be offered to state agencies and the county first; current tenants would most likely be displaced.

In a letter to Ehrlich dated Oct. 9, Owens requested that the governor appoint a transition team of health and real estate officials to work with the county, hospital staff members and local residents to "provide a smooth transition."

Most of the property is zoned for residential use, which could open the door to a large new housing development, a prospect that worries homeowners who live near the hospital.

"We'd like to see it stay a hospital, but if that's not possible, then we don't want to see it developed with houses," said Don Yeskey, president of the Generals Highway Council of Civic Associations.

Conservationists, who last year preserved a 500-acre swath of land that was formerly part of the Crownsville Hospital campus with the help of the Maryland Environmental Trust, are also concerned. "The best use for the county and the state will not be to put more houses on it," said Clifford Andrew, president of the Scenic Rivers Land Trust, a group that worked on the preservation project.

Across the nation, state officials are dismantling mental health networks due to budget constraints and extensive changes in psychiatric care. Where large facilities such as Crownsville Hospital - with its manor house administrative office and bucolic grounds - used to be the model of mental health care, many patients are now treated in smaller, out-patient clinics.

In Massachusetts, where state officials have shut down several mental health facilities in recent years, state administrators, local planners and residents worked together to come up with a reuse plan for the Danvers State Hospital, a 500-acre facility in Danvers, Mass.

David Dixon, a principal with the Boston architecture and planning firm of Goody Clancy Associates, helped put the plan together.

"In some ways, given the history of these sites, they are gifts from the past," Dixon said in a telephone interview Friday. "They are large enough to preserve a character that has disappeared. To preserve what you cannot replace must be a prominent goal of any reuse plan."

In the case of Danvers State Hospital, members of the reuse task force decided to maintain most of the site as open space, preserve the site's historic buildings and landscapes, and identify an area appropriate for a variety of private development initiatives. The state and town adopted the plan and chose a developer together.

"This may be a large site that belongs to the state and it may be a historic and environmental resource, but it is also a really big local planning project," Dixon said. "You have to plan from the top down and the bottom up."

Boschert, the state delegate from Crownsville, said that if he can't persuade state officials to keep the hospital open, he will work to ensure that local government and residents have a say in the reuse process. He has already talked with some residents about creating a veterans home or conference center at the site.

"The main thing to remember is that this is just a recommendation," Boschert said. "We are a long way from closing it."

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