County to study hospital grounds

Officials consider assuming control at Crownsville, will pay $250,000 to assess cost of cleanup, reuse

October 21, 2005|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

Anne Arundel County will spend $250,000 to examine the condition of shuttered buildings and other outdated infrastructure at Crownsville Hospital Center, a move that will help state officials determine the cost of cleaning up and reusing the heavily contaminated grounds.

The state closed the 90-year-old psychiatric hospital in the summer of 2004, and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has expressed interest in the county's assuming control of the 544-acre campus.

Nonprofit organizations use parts of the land, and Owens has envisioned it as an enclave for other nonprofit and social service agencies.

With cost estimates in the tens of millions of dollars, Owens has put the onus on the state to deliver the money needed to clean up the state campus' 61 buildings, most of which contain asbestos and lead paint, and upgrade outdated electrical, water and sewage systems.

Owens said she recently received assurances from state officials, including Van T. Mitchell, deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, of help in securing funds during the next General Assembly session. That has made putting a price tag on the cleanup a priority, with the start of the session three months away.

Anne Arundel County will spend $250,000 to analyze the condition of the 61 buildings and the electric, water and sewage systems. At Owens' request, the Anne Arundel County Council approved funds Monday for the study, which is expected to start next month.

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been examining the environmental conditions of the grounds - but not the buildings - since the summer of 2004. State officials hope to file a final report in January, about the same time the county expects to complete its study, said county land use officer Robert D. Miller.

Owens has pushed the state agency to conclude its report since January, when she wrote Secretary S. Anthony McCann telling him that Anne Arundel might back away from taking control of the campus because of the potential multimillion-dollar cleanup bill.

McCann responded in writing to Owens in March, asking for patience as the state agency completes its analysis of the 544 acres a few miles west of Annapolis between Interstate 97 and the county fairgrounds.

Elizabeth Barnard, director of the state department's office of planning and capital financing, said most of the cost of cleanup is related to the buildings. She said environmental inspectors have uncovered about $15,000 in ground contamination from petroleum and that she doesn't expect the cost to skyrocket when the state concludes its study.

Owens said this week that she was optimistic about striking a deal with the state on Crownsville but that she is withholding judgment until she sees exact figures.

Owens and Miller cautioned that even with state assistance, the project could remain prohibitively expensive.

"I really need to wait for that before I can make a decision," Owens said.

State health officials and a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich said this week that not enough details were known about the cost of revitalizing Crownsville to decide how much money would be needed and where it would come from. The governor will not release his budget until January.

Miller told the council that the county's "kick-the-tires assessment" is necessary to determine how Anne Arundel could use the closed buildings.

The site has a 75-acre waste irrigation system. Miller said replacing that with a public sewer system would be too expensive and unpractical. He said that if the county assumed control of the campus, separate septic systems for each building might be the best alternative, and the study will help figure that out.

"If the county will be the landlord, we need to know the conditions of all of the buildings," Miller said on Tuesday. "We don't want to come in the first week and have the phone ring off the hook because of maintenance requests."

The closing of the Crownsville campus last year ended 12 years of debate among health officials and legislators over the need for three psychiatric hospitals in Maryland. Advances in psycho-pharmaceutical medicine have lessened the demand for residential treatment.

Most of the 61 buildings are abandoned, but the complex houses several nonprofit organizations, such as the Anne Arundel County Food and Resource Bank, a drug treatment center, a public school and a satellite police station.

Owens has held discussions with Anne Arundel Medical Center about opening a mental health facility on the site. The state is spending at least $1 million a year to maintain the property.

Developers have said the county could use part of the property to address a shortage of affordable housing for teachers, firefighters, police and other professionals, but Miller said the area is not equipped for sprawling residential development.

No matter how development unfolds, the process is likely to take several years, officials said.

Owens wrote to Mitchell in May, saying the county and state could pursue a state bond bill to fund the infrastructure improvements necessary to keep the existing organizations on site. But she said she wanted to proceed "cautiously and prudently in this endeavor."

Del. David G. Boschert, a Republican who represents Crownsville, applauded Owens' willingness to take a cautious approach. He said he would make it "a personal crusade" to get the proper funding for cleanup when the General Assembly convenes.

"It looks very positive," he said.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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