State to study hospital plans

Maryland requests halt to preservation of part of facility's campus

Delay `just leaves options open'

Hospital center abutting land might be closed

December 21, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Residents fighting to save Crownsville Hospital Center have developed a second concern: that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration has begun undoing his predecessor's promise to preserve a swath of the hospital's campus.

Their fears stem from a recent state request that the Maryland Environmental Trust halt its preservation plans for 550 acres that were part of the hospital campus.

But state officials said the residents should not be worried - at least not yet.

"This is not a move to say we're going to throw a bunch of housing units on that" land, said Stephen S. Hershey Jr., an assistant secretary for the state Department of Planning.

Hershey said it's natural that the state, which is facing a budget shortfall, would want to take more time to study the 550-acre property and its possible uses now that the adjacent Crownsville Hospital Center might be closed. The request for a delay "just leaves the options open," he said.

Next month the General Assembly will begin debating the future of Crownsville Hospital Center, the third-largest psychiatric hospital run by the state of Maryland. If the state opts to close the hospital, it must decide what to do with the campus' 630 acres.

Residents are concerned that the entire campus, including the land they thought was preserved, could be sold for development, said Don Yeskey, president of the local umbrella group of civic associations.

"We don't want to see any state offices on it. We don't want to see any houses on it," he said. "We're worried about the traffic."

The state, spurred by the General Assembly, is looking to close one of its three largest psychiatric hospitals. In October, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene selected Crownsville for closure.

The 90-year-old Crownsville hospital once housed thousands of patients but now has 200. Its stately but deteriorating buildings cover 100 acres of the campus. The rest is forest and hills.

Interstate 97 bisects the campus. The 550 acres in question are marked with steep hillsides and are on the west side of I-97.

In 1998, a developer asked to buy that land from the state to build homes on about 200 acres. At the developer's request, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced in March 1999 that the land would be preserved as open space.

"This is not an area where the county wants growth to occur, and a large portion of the land is environmentally sensitive," Glendening said at the time.

Last December, the Board of Public Works approved the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's transfer of the land to the Environmental Trust, a state government-funded nonprofit agency.

John Bernstein, director of the Environmental Trust, said his agency intended to give the land to Anne Arundel County, which would preserve it permanently. The Environmental Trust and the Scenic Rivers Land Trust would have held the development rights to the land, ensuring that it remained open space.

That plan hit a snag when the state Department of Planning requested Sept. 11 that the Environmental Trust "hold its request to transfer [the land] to Anne Arundel County," according to an October follow-up letter obtained by The Sun.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens declined to comment for this article, but her spokeswoman provided an Oct. 9 letter that she wrote to Bernstein. It says Owens is "anxious to close on this property"

"The intent was to keep it the way it is," said Del. David G. Boschert, a Republican who represents Crownsville. "We don't have to sell it off. It should be maintained as an environmental haven."

"I don't feel it's in the best interest of the state of Maryland to renege on promises when it comes to the environment."

Residents fear that the state could easily take back the land from the Environmental Trust, Yeskey said.

"Some people have said there is a strong effort by Ehrlich to undo many things Glendening did," he said.

Bernstein said the Environmental Trust is waiting for word from the state on what to do with the land.

State Department of Planning spokesman Chuck Gates said the governor is probably not aware of the letter requesting that the Environmental Trust hold off on its transfer. Taking the land back from the Environmental Trust would require action by the Board of Public Works, a three-person board that includes Ehrlich.

There has been no indication that that is in the works, Gates and Hershey said.

"At the end of the day," Hershey said, "it's probably going to end up [how] it is now, but we just need to take some time to look at it."

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