Hopes for Sanctuary may be sinking

Court to decide if former military ship can stay afloat at pier in Locust Point

March 16, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

After nearly 20 years, millions of dollars and a protracted court battle that became increasingly bitter, the port of Baltimore and the owner of a ship promised to recovering drug addicts may finally part ways.

The Sanctuary is a former Navy hospital vessel with decades of proud service. And Stephen J. Hammer is a former substance abuse addict consumed with his desire to see it serve others in need of rehabilitation. With some powerful political backers years ago, he pushed his way into a port-owned pier in North Locust Point.

But Hammer's five-year lease with the Maryland Port Administration ended last June before he could find a suitable sponsor and a residential treatment program to move aboard. He owes the port nearly $100,000 in back rent, fees and the cost of securing the vacant ship to the weedy docks that surround it. The port, which never wanted a rehab center on its grounds to begin with, went to U.S. District Court last week to force the sale of the Sanctuary to cover its costs and rid the state pier of the now-deteriorating ship.

"We need some resolution to this matter," said Richard Scher, a spokesman for the port. "A couple of weeks ago, it broke free from its moorings and floated away from the pier.

"We were able to tie it to a neighboring pier. But that was an indication to us about the ship's physical state," Scher said.

If the court agrees with the port, it could order the ship sold or turn it over to the port for sale.

Hammer, who lives in Gettysburg, Pa., has maintained his belief all along that Baltimore needs such a facility. A deeply religious man, he expressed continued faith that the program would come to fruition. In an e-mail, he said he feels like "one tiny person [with a rosary] being attacked by everybody."

After all, the court sided with him last time. That's how he got the lease.

Port officials say it wouldn't be physically safe for participants to come and go through a working port. North Locust Point, primarily a gateway for paper, also handles automobiles. Officials say the cargo wouldn't necessarily be safe from the ship's residents.

Hammer's nonprofit group, Project Life Inc., took over the Sanctuary in 1993 from another group, Life International, which acquired it four years before from the Navy for $10 in exchange for putting it to good use.

After failing to reach an agreement with the port about finding a state pier for the ship, Hammer sued the port in 1998 in U.S. District Court, accusing it of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and other statutes for denying recovering addicts a place to go.

After several years of fighting, the port lost the lawsuit and was forced to pay $12 in damages to Project Life and $1.1 million in legal fees. Hammer also won the right to a five-year lease, which was signed in 2001.

Things were looking up for the Sanctuary. The state had issued bonds worth at least a half-million dollars, and coupled with private fundraising, Hammer had about $2 million. It was spent on upgrades to the ship. But still, Hammer couldn't find a government sponsor for the 522-foot, eight-story ship. The ship would be able to accommodate 3,600 addicts a year for residential rehabilitation, Hammer says.

In addition to finding a program, the ship also would need an inspection by state and fire officials to ensure the health and safety of those living aboard. And to be housed at the pier permanently, the Sanctuary would need approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and an inspection by the Coast Guard.

Such efforts are less likely now. After the ship's escape from its moorings, Baltimore's top Coast Guard official recently wrote a letter to Hammer that the ship "presents an unacceptable risk to the port of Baltimore with existing mooring arrangements at Pier 6 [of Locust Point]."

B.D. Kelly, captain of the port, wrote that Hammer needed to submit professional plans for securing the ship. Hammer hasn't said what he'll do next.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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