Hospital site up for development

County officials had hoped to gain control

residents worry about future changes

June 22, 2008|By Steven Stanek | Steven Stanek,Sun Reporter

The state government is shopping for a tenant to develop 559 acres of the former Crownsville Hospital Center, dashing the hopes of county officials who wanted control of the site and stirring the concerns of neighbors that the community's landscape will be drastically altered.

Interested developers have until June 30 to respond to a request sent out by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which has controlled the property since the state-run psychiatric hospital closed in 2004.

State officials would not name any companies that have expressed interest in the site, which contains 14 historic structures among its 66 buildings but requires a multimillion-dollar environmental cleanup.

The expensive removal of asbestos contamination, lead paint and buried medical waste has been a sticking point for Anne Arundel officials who had lobbied the state for a free transfer of the land to the county.

"We were hopeful earlier that the state would allow the county to utilize this property. Now the state is obviously moving in a different direction," said County Executive John R. Leopold. "We would hope that the state would still respect the importance of listening to the voices of the community going forward."

Leopold has made property preservation a hallmark of his administration. Last year, he led efforts to preserve the 857-acre former Naval Academy Dairy Farm in Gambrills, spent $6.1 million to buy and preserve land in Lothian where a shopping center anchored by a Target store was planned, and secured 547 forested acres on the eastern half of the former hospital grounds for parkland.

Leopold said the county had been considering the remainder of the Crownsville property for a variety of uses, ranging from affordable housing to a home for war veterans.

The site is currently zoned "Rural Agricultural," meaning only one house can be built for every 20 acres of property. A change in the regulations would require approval by the county.

"I would anticipate whoever gets the contract having to work with the county planning and zoning office to get this done," said County Councilman Jamie Benoit.

The state has agreed to follow the county's zoning requirements even if it retains the property for official use, though the state is not subject to county zoning laws, said Alan R. Friedman, Leopold's government relations director.

Residents and community activists fear that houses will be crowded onto the property. They have also fought for years to keep traffic away from General's Highway, which fronts the property and was designated in 2006 as a scenic and historic road.

"We don't want any highly intense development. ... When there's an accident on I-97, General's Highway already becomes a parking lot," said Don Yeskey, president of the General's Highway Council of Civic Associations. "We are a very rural area and we would like to see that property stay with the same characteristics that we have for the neighborhood."

Officials at several nonprofits that operate at the site said they fear new development will bump them off the property.

"Finding spaces for a residential facility and being able to zone it for treatment isn't easy. ... People don't want these facilities in their neighborhood," said J. Michael McGuinness, executive director of Second Genesis, a drug and alcohol treatment center that has operated there since 1988. "It is a mecca for nonprofits up there."

Those concerns have been echoed by Benoit and Councilman Joshua J, Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat, whose district also overlaps the property. Last week the councilmen sent a letter outlining their concerns to Matthew J. Power, deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Planning, which is overseeing the bid process.

Cohen said that any plan for fully developing the site without preserving open space is a "non-starter."

"One thing I don't want is the state to look at this as a blank check, to maximize revenue regardless of what's built," he said.

Cohen said an "obvious use" for the site would be a continuing care retirement community similar to Charlestown in Catonsville.

Charlestown is owned by Baltimore County-based Erickson Retirement Communities, which expressed interest in the site in the past, said former County Executive Janet S. Owens, who tried unsuccessfully to wrest the site from state control in 2004.

Whoever wins the contract will face steep costs, she said.

At least 55 of the buildings and underground steam tunnels on the site are contaminated with asbestos, which would cost at least $5.7 million to clean up, according to a state evaluation.

Other environmental concerns include contaminated soil near dump sites and at least 22 buildings that have lead paint.

In the past, the state has estimated the cleanup at about $25 million, but Owens said that in 2004 she hired an independent group that determined the costs to be closer to $70 million.

Still, she added, there is no shortage of companies interested in the site:

"I was being bombarded by developers. I am sure some of the big ones will come out of the woodwork on this one."

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