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Fort Howard project gets good report, but some disagree

Study finds no significant environmental impact or opposition

By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

10:22 AM EST, November 10, 2011

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has released a report on the potential environmental impact of a proposed 1,473-unit residential development on the Baltimore County waterfront that can be summed up in two words: no problem. Opponents of the Fort Howard project disagree, and they mean to make waves.

The 171-page report, open for public comment through Nov. 25 finds that the proposal by Fort Howard Development LLC would have "no significant impacts" on air, water, wildlife, land use or local traffic, and "no significant public controversy is anticipated." While the report refers to a previous study showing several areas of the 95-acre site where hazardous materials were used or stored in the past, it concludes that if handled according to state and federal laws, these should not present a danger.

The report was commissioned by the VA, which owns the property now used only for a medical clinic. Jo Schuda, a VA spokeswoman, said in an email that the report's finding is a "recommendation, but VA needs the public's input, if any, before it can issue the official" finding.

The report is an early step forward for the proposal. The county's process of reviewing the $530 million project — hailed by the developer as a "national model for serving our nation's veterans" — hasn't started yet.

While the project that would give housing preference to veterans has the support of some veterans and the County Council member from that district, it is opposed by neighborhood groups. A community meeting is scheduled Tuesday night at the North Point-Edgemere Volunteer Fire Hall. Organizers say the event will show there's strong opposition to the plan, which was announced by the developer about a year ago.

Some say the project is too big and would jam the two-lane North Point Road. Others want the entire complex set aside strictly for military veterans, rather than giving veterans of any age first chance to buy homes, then offering the rest to any prospective buyer who is 55 or older.

"It's too massive of a complex for that tip of a peninsula," said Russell S. Donnelly, of Edgemere, who is not a veteran but has worked as a volunteer helping the veterans who were getting medical care at Fort Howard. Donnelly has coordinated efforts of several community organizations opposed to the project.

"That's a lot of cars traveling up and down North Point Road," Donnelly said. "It's crowded now."

Donnelly said opponents have "over 4,000 signatures" on petitions calling for the site to be used for long-term medical care and housing for veterans only. He said the petitions will be presented to elected officials, including President Barack Obama.

Alfred E. Clasing Jr., a Navy veteran of World War II and member of an opposition group called Fort Howard Project Exclusively for Veterans, said he disagrees with the report's findings on traffic and local opposition.

"A lot of people have contacted me and joined our following," said Clasing, who said his group would like to see the site set aside as a national park, with greater emphasis on its history. A marker alongside the main road into Fort Howard identifies the spot as the landing point for 4,700 British troops in September 1814, whose march to Baltimore was turned back by American soldiers in the Battle of North Point.

With the project as now planned, Clasing said, "we will be giving away the heritage of the United States of America. … Once they give up that property, it's gone forever."

The developer has said that along with restaurants, office buildings and a new medical clinic, plans include a museum to house artifacts representing the history of the site. The peninsula that lies where the Patapsco and Back rivers meet the Chesapeake Bay was turned into a fort by the U.S. government in the 19th century, then became home to a VA hospital during World War II. The hospital closed in 2002.

The developers plan to offer an array of choices of types of housing, from those providing nursing care to independent living. The plan includes houses in several styles and price ranges, including town houses and single-family homes.

The zoning for that area only allows about 500 housing units, about a third of the number planned, but the developers plan to pursue the project as a planned unit development, or PUD. That process allows the developer to exceed zoning limits in exchange for providing some benefit to the community, such as land for a park or a donation to a local organization.

A PUD cannot be considered until the district's County Council member introduces a resolution to the council asking to begin the review. Councilman John Olszewski Sr. of District 7, who was quoted in a developer's news release in April supporting the project, has not introduced such a measure. He could not be reached for comment on this article.

Copies of the VA report are available by calling Mike McNeil at 410-605-7144.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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