A decade after the Department of Veterans Affairs closed its hospital at Fort Howard, most of the buildings at the sprawling Baltimore County waterfront property are boarded up. A big rusty pole in front of the old facility has no flag.
But there are plans to turn the site into a huge, mixed-use development for veterans and senior citizens. Nearby residents oppose the developer's proposal, but the Department of Veterans Affairs is moving forward with the project, which has the backing of elected officials.
It's not the first time someone's had big ideas for Fort Howard — and many in the community are skeptical after other plans to build homes there fell through, leaving some veterans with nothing to show for the payments they put down.
Their concerns haven't changed since more than 200 people packed an Edgemere fire hall in November to speak out about the project. Some worry about traffic on narrow North Point Road. Others want the site to be set aside exclusively for veterans. A small outpatient clinic still operates there.
"People have legitimate concerns," said developer Tim Munshell of Fort Howard Development LLC, who announced his plans last April. "I understand. It's the process of every development plan."
The housing would be "veteran-preferred." Veterans who sign up would get priority, Munshell said, but people 55 and older could sign up for the units that don't go to veterans. Munshell also wants to build restaurants, a small grocery store and other retail space, as well as office buildings. The project is expected to cost more than $500 million.
The plans are far too big, said Harry Wujek, president of the North Point Peninsula Community Coordinating Council.
"I do not oppose it," Wujek said. "I oppose the size of it. … We don't like the idea of them bringing a city down here and plopping it … in the middle of our community."
The VA's project manager wasn't available for comment last week.
The federal government and developer are now working to finalize a development plan that's part of a 75-year lease for the site, Munshell said.
The VA will ensure that the developer complies with lease agreements, which include providing affordable veteran housing, a facility for single veteran mothers, a VA-operated clinic and other health care facilities, according to a letter the agency recently sent to Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger.
Still, Wujek and others are skeptical of the developer's plans to serve veterans. "It's all about bucks," he said, looking out at the water.
Munshell, who wants to build 1,415 housing units, hopes to start the county review process in April or May. The 98-acre site along the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay is zoned for about 550 units, so he must apply for Planned Unit Development status, which lets developers build more densely if their project offers some benefit to the community.
His company has agreed to pay back down payments that veterans lost to the previous developer, but it's not clear how many people are still owed money.
Thirty people filed complaints with the state attorney general, and all have gotten their money back, said Karen Straughn, assistant attorney general and director of the mediation unit. More people could still be owed money, but did not notify the state.
Munshell says his project, called the Landing at Fort Howard, will help preserve the history of the site, which is where British troops landed in 1814 in an effort to capture Baltimore. The VA opened the hospital in the 1940s.
"All these buildings are falling apart," Munshell said. "And if something's not done with them soon, they're going to lose whatever historical value's in them."
County Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat who represents the area, said his office has long received complaints about vandalism and copper thefts from the historic buildings at the site.
Olszewski said it is unrealistic to think that the VA will open a new hospital or park at Fort Howard, as some in the community have suggested. "Right now, all levels of government are hard pressed for money," he said.
Munshell's company will invest in community improvements, including upgrades to local parks, he said. "There's a lot of positives in this," Olszewski said.
Ruppersberger said he understands the concerns, especially given what happened with the other developer. But he said he has confidence in the new plans.
"One of my highest priorities is to follow through with the promises that we made to our veterans," he said.
But community opposition hasn't died down, said Alfred Clasing Jr., a World War II veteran who helped lead the November meeting.
"We intend to keep the issue alive," Clasing said.
Clasing wants the property to be reserved "exclusively for veterans." He's worried veterans would not be able to afford the housing units.
Leaders haven't listened to concerns about traffic, the environment and other issues, said Clasing, who said that he is still waiting to be repaid his $750 down payment to the previous developer.
"We are being ignored, and not just by some of the elected officials, but all of them," Clasing said.
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