State leaders approved the free transfer yesterday of 547 acres of the former Crownsville Hospital Center to Anne Arundel County, which intends to preserve the environmentally sensitive parcel as parkland with hiking trails.
The Board of Public Works' unanimous vote to declare the state land west of Interstate 97 as surplus is a critical step in the county's effort to build a nearly continuous strip of open space stretching from the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel to Waterworks Park, just outside Annapolis.
County Executive John R. Leopold said it would also serve as a "prelude" for the county's acquiring the full Crownsville campus of nearly 1,200 acres, the future of which has been in limbo since the state closed the psychiatric hospital in 2004.
Leopold has expressed formal interest in taking control of the larger 648-acre parcel that includes the hospital's 61 buildings. That tract, on the east side of I-97, has been under review by the state for possible sale or transfer.
Then-County Executive Janet S. Owens had balked at taking over the 648 acres because of the estimated $25 million environmental cleanup cost, but Leopold said his administration is trying to strike a deal with the state to fund it over several years.
"The costs are there, but if we plan for the property in a measured, responsive way, we can handle those costs over time," Leopold said.
Several possible uses have been suggested for the 648 acres: affordable housing, a state veterans home, a mental health clinic and a relocation site for county government buildings. Civic activists have worried that portions of the Crownsville campus would fall into the hands of developers. Several nonprofits, county agencies and an alternative high school are tenants there.
"I am glad he got this first slug," said County Councilman G. James "Jamie" Benoit, a Democrat who represents Crownsville. "It gets us in the best position to get the rest."
Several state agencies and the city of Annapolis, however, have also expressed interest in the property, said Linda C. Janey, who works for the state Department of Planning. She would not name those agencies.
"Because of the size, we want to make sure whatever recommendation is the best recommendation," Janey said. "We are taking our time."
Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer did not return a phone call last night seeking comment.
Leopold said the acquisition of the smaller Crownsville tract is important as western Anne Arundel faces growing development pressures fueled by a military expansion at Fort Meade. Last week, the Leopold administration announced a lease proposal to the Navy for 857 acres of farmland in Gambrills, with the intention of preserving that parcel for organic farming and creating community gardens.
"It's important that the county hold the reins of controlling its destiny rather than leave that control at the whim of state decision-makers," said Leopold, a Republican.
Owens first declared interest in the 547 acres in November 2004. She wanted to include it as part of a greenway network after then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. identified that parcel as one of several across the state for possible sale.
At the headwaters of the South River, the 547 acres will be a sanctuary for wildlife.
"This property is a relatively undisturbed natural area in a highly developed area of the state," Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, said in a statement. "A variety of habitats and natural features present opportunities for passive recreational activities such as wildlife viewing and hiking."
O'Malley is one of three members of the Board of Public Works, which decides most state contracts.
Leopold's chief lobbyist, Alan R. Friedman, said the county is negotiating with the Department of Natural Resources on allowing hunting there. The Legislative Policy Committee, which must review the board's decision within the next 45 days, is expected to concur.