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Fort Howard redevelopment stalled once again

Pamela Wood

Pamela WoodContact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Balto. Co. councilman blocks massive project at Fort Howard VA site.

Windows in the imposing former VA hospital building in southeastern Baltimore County have been broken or boarded up. Old wooden homes on the grounds are in varying states of disrepair, with peeling paint, ivy growing up the walls and rooftops torched by fire.

More than a decade has passed since the hospital at Fort Howard closed. A Maryland developer has proposed a project that would transform the site with shops, offices, a hotel and nearly 1,400 homes.

But the controversial effort has stalled repeatedly — and now it has hit another roadblock: County Councilman Todd Crandell says he won’t introduce a bill that the developer needs to move the plan forward.

“It was this massive project that’s been talked about that’s really garnered no community support at all,” the Dundalk Republican said. “I don’t think it’s a fit for the North Point Peninsula.”

Neighbors who are leery about a large project at the end of their quiet waterfront peninsula are cheering Crandell’s position — a follow-through on a campaign promise he made before he was elected last year. But the decision raises questions about how long the property will sit vacant and whether it will ever be redeveloped.

“This community has been through over 10 years of this property sitting there, and in my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful properties on the Chesapeake Bay,” Crandell said. “It’s a real opportunity for us, but it has to make sense for where it sits on the map.”

Neither Timothy Munshell, a developer from Montgomery County who signed a 75-year lease with the Department of Veterans Affairs to redevelop the property, nor his lawyer, Patricia A. Malone, responded to requests for comment.

The VA also did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2011, Munshell spoke of building a vibrant senior living community focused on veterans. In a YouTube video, his described the history of the site and promised a “grand community.” Words on the screen at the end read: “It’s not a development. It’s our duty.”

Munshell, who has not attended community meetings or made public presentations in recent years, sent his proposal to Crandell’s office last month. He asked Crandell to introduce legislation that would allow the project — called the Landing at Fort Howard — to go through the county’s planned-unit development process.

That process allows the county to exempt a developer from normal zoning rules in exchange for a benefit to the community.

To go through the process, a developer must be approved by the County Council. Council members generally defer to the member who represents the area where a development is proposed.

That means Crandell’s decision not to introduce the legislation for Munshell effectively brings the project to a halt.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz declined to comment on Crandell’s decision. He said zoning decisions are a matter for the council, not the county executive.

Munshell’s Landing at Fort Howard proposal includes 1,375 units for independent senior living, assisted living and nursing care. Some units would be sold and some would be rented. There would be a 112-room hotel, more than 100,000 square feet of retail shops and nearly 60,000 square feet of offices.

The development would include a new clinic to replace the current outpatient VA clinic, the only building now operating at the site. It also would provide “priority housing” for veterans and include “rehabilitation and adaptive reuse” of historic buildings, according to the application.

The number of homes in the Landing at Fort Howard would be roughly triple what could legally be built under the existing zoning on the 104-acre property.

Neighbors say Munshell’s proposal is too big and has too little focus on veterans.

The property “had always been for veterans, and that’s how it should be,” said Kathy Labuda, a lifelong Fort Howard resident who is secretary-treasurer of the neighborhood’s new Fort Howard Community Association.

Residents worry that two-lane North Point Road, which passes through cornfields and cow pastures, can’t handle additional traffic. They say they’re not sure about the capacity of water and sewer lines on the peninsula, and fear the development would alter the quiet, close-knit nature of the community. There are about 180 homes in the Fort Howard neighborhood outside the VA property.

“It would basically extinguish this community here,” said Scott Pappas, vice president of the Fort Howard Community Association and a resident since 1999.

Labuda’s brother Joe Labuda, also a lifelong resident and an Army veteran, said he wants assurances that the VA property would be used exclusively for veterans. He’s not convinced the Landing at Fort Howard would end up serving veterans.

“They know the catchword ‘veterans preference’ doesn’t mean a thing,” he said. “Four or five years after they open up, there ain’t going to be a veteran in there.”

A small county park in the neighborhood is dedicated to veterans, with a brick plaza and a memorial listing the names of local residents who served in World War II.

“There is a clear, hard-core patriotic vein running through the community,” Pappas said.

The military history of North Point is long and rich. British troops landed on the peninsula during the War of 1812 and marched on Baltimore, where they were turned back by the Americans.

The Army built Fort Howard in 1900. Nicknamed the “Bulldog at Baltimore’s Gate,” it served in the 1920s as headquarters for Gen. Douglas MacArthur when he was posted to the city.

Eventually the fort was decommissioned and the land was given to the VA in 1940 for a hospital. The inpatient hospital was closed in 2002 and plans were announced for future redevelopment.

As plans languish, the VA property is causing headaches for neighbors and county officials.

There have been several suspicious fires; after one blaze last December, county inspectors ordered Munshell to repair defective hydrants and maintain a fire watch.

In July, the county filed a code enforcement citation against Munshell, saying he had placed the “health, safety and welfare of the public at large in jeopardy” by failing to comply with the order. A hearing before a county administrative law judge is set for next month; Munshell is facing more than $40,000 in possible fines.

“The county believes there were significant gaps over days and sometimes weeks, where security was not provided at all,” said Brady Locher, an assistant county attorney. “During some of those gaps, additional fires were set.”

Munshell isn’t the first developer to face challenges at Fort Howard. He took the reins there after John Infantino backed out, saying that county zoning and tax issues made the project financially unworkable.

Infantino, who planned to build a project he called Bayside at Fort Howard, was required to return application fees that dozens of veterans had paid for a spot.

Crandell said he hopes his rejection of Munshell’s plans will spur a fresh start for redevelopment at Fort Howard. Crandell wants Munshell to renegotiate his lease with the VA and propose a new development plan.

“People would like to see the right project occur there,” he said. “I think that the community has been more than patient, but we’re not going to move forward with something that doesn’t make sense.”

On behalf of the residents of the community of Fort Howard,  Maryland and all Veterans,  “Thank you Mr. Crandell for your courage, leadership, representation.”

Mr. Joseph Swain,

United States Air Force  Security Forces Afghanistan 2001, Fort Howard Resident & Community Association Board Member