Nonprofits face eviction in Arundel

Impasse over Crownsville grounds could force sale

April 08, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

The state is threatening to evict several nonprofit organizations, including a regional food bank and a nursing home, operating on the grounds of the former Crownsville state psychiatric hospital, in a dispute with Anne Arundel County over the future of the property, which the county says it cannot afford to take over.

A top Ehrlich administration official told Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens in a letter obtained yesterday by The Sun that the impasse over who will pay $25 million for environmental cleanup will force the state to clear the land for possible sale.

"I regret that we were not able to reach a conclusion that would allow the tenants to remain at Crownsville," Van T. Mitchell, deputy secretary for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told Owens in the Feb. 6 letter.

Mitchell put the onus on the county to relocate the nonprofit groups from Crownsville as the state prepares for a "final sale or transfer of the property." He set a June 2007 deadline for the community organizations to leave.

In an interview yesterday, Mitchell said he regretted that the two sides have been unable to work out a deal.

"I thought it would be a good opportunity for Anne Arundel County to keep them there," Mitchell said of the nonprofit organizations. "That's one of the reasons I hoped the county would take the property. It came down to a concern about money."

The state has offered to give the 648-acre tract to the county, but Owens said Anne Arundel cannot afford the remediation without state support. She said the county would expand the nonprofit presence on the site if it could take over the property.

In response to a request from Owens, she and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will meet April 18.

"Obviously I will put in a plea to protect the nonprofits," Owens said yesterday. "They are extraordinarily good, and they are difficult to relocate anywhere in the state. ... Crownsville as a site has the support of the community."

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said yesterday that the governor would reserve comment on retaining the nonprofit groups at Crownsville until meeting with Owens.

State officials are considering taking Crownsville to the government clearinghouse as excess property, a process by which other state agencies could declare interest in the parcel along Interstate 97 outside Annapolis. If there is no interest, county officials and community leaders fear developers will acquire it.

The former hospital complex, a rolling campus first built for black patients in the 1910s, has been a subject of discussion - and later contention - between the state and county since it closed in 2004.

The campus consists of 61 mostly historic brick buildings laden with asbestos and lead paint. The electrical, water and sewage systems require an overhaul. Preliminary findings from a county-hired consultant in January listed $25.4 million in improvements, which included demolishing 34 buildings.

One nonprofit group based there, Chesapeake PC Users Group, refurbishes old computers to give to lower-income children and families. Another, Second Genesis, runs two substance abuse centers.

"You don't want a treatment center in your neighborhood," said Cathy Martens, Second Genesis executive director. "That's what makes this location ideal."

"You can imagine what a therapeutic place it is to get well," Martens said. "We have clients from the mean streets of Baltimore who find this more rural and tranquil."

The Anne Arundel County Food Bank, located under the Crownsville water tower, faces displacement. Bruce Michalec, the founding director, said yesterday that being within walking distance of other nonprofit organizations is crucial to their collective success. And for now, the state's price is right: The food bank pays for electricity, maintenance and water.

"We're like a village," Michalec said. "We all help each other. I give food to the treatment centers; the care facilities can send volunteers to us and other places."

Owens, who is in her last year as county executive and is weighing a run for Congress, said in January that the county would not take over the land and said her priority is to prepare for an expansion at Fort Meade of at least 20,000 jobs over the next decade. The influx will require the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade schools, roads and services.

Del. David G. Boschert, a Crownsville Republican running for county executive, said the two sides should postpone a final decision until after the fall election. "Let's settle down. ... I think the dialogue and negotiations should continue," he said.

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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