Fort Howard should be a place for military veterans to heal — not the site of new residential and retail development, residents of nearby communities said Tuesday.
About 200 people turned out for a community meeting at the North Point-Edgemere Volunteer Fire Hall, and most opposed Fort Howard Development LLC's plans to build a 1,473-unit development on the waterfront site.
Many said they wanted the site to be used for a long-term medical facility and housing for veterans only. They also say they're worried about traffic on North Point Boulevard.
"We can't lose this beautiful place for the community or for the veterans," said Linda Gossman, president of the Gray Manor/Northshire Community Association.
The packed gathering grew heated at times. The crowd's comments stood in contrast to a report the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs commissioned that concluded that "no significant public controversy is anticipated" over the planned 94-acre development.
The VA report is open for public comment through Nov. 25, but many speakers suggested that the project appeared to be a done deal.
"I'm getting to the point now where I don't think we have any effect with our politicians," said Fort Howard resident and Army veteran Joe Labuda, who wants the site to be used for a rehabilitation facility for veterans.
A VA hospital at the site closed in 2002. There is still a small, outpatient medical clinic there.
The developers have said the project would give housing preference to veterans. In addition to homes, the development would feature a new medical clinic, restaurants, offices and a museum showcasing Fort Howard's history.
But many speakers said the housing should be reserved for veterans.
"The veterans always get shortchanged," said Navy veteran Nathaniel Comella. "Even if [the housing preference] were written into law, they would get shafted, I guarantee it."
"I think this is an opportunity that we can't pass up," he said, saying that the planned medical facilities would provide veterans with better care than they have now.
Opponents of the development circulated petitions and said they would launch a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress.
Some state lawmakers from the area attended the meeting. The developers also attended, listening to the speakers from a table near the corner of the room; they declined to comment.