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News Maryland Baltimore County Dundalk

Some skeptical of new plans to develop VA site at Fort Howard

Eighty-eight-year-old Alfred Clasing Jr. and his wife, Marie, had hoped to spend their final years at a retirement community for veterans at Fort Howard, part of a scenic Baltimore County peninsula that juts into the Chesapeake Bay.

But a developer's ambitious blueprint for the federally owned property fell through, contributing to a decade of inactivity at the site. Now, even as the government and another developer work on a project that would bring about 1,300 residential units for veterans and others to the 94-acre site, the Clasings doubt they will ever find a home there.

"I don't think we'll live long enough," said Marie, 91.

Last week, the government announced that it had finalized a long-term lease with Fort Howard Development LLC for the historic former Fort Howard Veterans Administration Medical Center campus. In addition to the residences, plans call for shops and medical facilities in a project that the VA hopes will be a national model for housing former service members and their families.

"They are our priority," developer Tim Munshell said, adding that the development would be built over 10 years. "It's going to be a great community."

From 1943 through 2002, the VA operated a hospital on the waterfront property at the tip of the North Point peninsula. Today, historic buildings there are boarded up, with weeds overgrown around them. A small outpatient clinic still operates.

To Clasing and other area veterans, the site has a sacred place in American history. It was there that British troops landed in 1814 in their attempt to capture and burn Baltimore.

Clasing and a group he leads, Save Fort Howard, say the site should be reserved exclusively for veterans.

"Once it's gone to be commercially used, then it's going to be gone forever," said Clasing, an Essex resident who served in the Navy in World War II.

Munshell's plans, announced in 2011, call for "veteran-preferred" housing, meaning that veterans would be first on any waiting list, but others could also apply.

Federal officials say the development will offer veterans housing at various prices, with categories to include active adult living, assisted living and skilled nursing. They want to set aside 10 acres for a possible veterans' home.

The project would also have 50 supportive housing units for formerly homeless, at-risk veterans. Under the agreement, Fort Howard Development would be responsible for expanding the outpatient clinic into a state-of-the art facility. Munshell envisions a retail component of less than 40,000 square feet, with service-related businesses such as a bank, dry cleaner, coffee shop and pharmacy.

"We've been very focused on doing the best we can to find a developer that will proceed and provide the benefits to veterans that we anticipate," said Paul MacPherson, director of the enhanced-use leasing program for the VA. "Because of the challenges we had with the first lessee, we worked as hard as we can to make sure this one's done right."

Fee settlement

The previous developer's proposal, Bayside at Fort Howard, featured residences, a large marina, shops and other amenities. But those plans never materialized. The developer, John Infantino, clashed with county officials on zoning and tax issues, saying regulations made the project financially unworkable.

"Given today's financing marketplace, it is highly improbable that the project can be developed under the same constraints that we were faced with," Infantino told The Baltimore Sun in 2009.

After the VA terminated its lease for Infantino's project that year, some people had trouble collecting fees that had been paid to reserve residences at Bayside.

Clasing, for example, paid a $750 application fee. When the project fell through and he didn't get his money back, he complained to the Maryland attorney general's office. In 2011, he received a refund check — but it bounced, according to documents Clasing provided to The Baltimore Sun.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler recently reached a settlement with Infantino and two of his companies over allegations that deposits of prospective residents were kept even though the housing was not built at Fort Howard. According to Gansler's office, "holder fees" and deposits were collected from veterans and their spouses who wanted to live at Bayside. The state's Consumer Protection Division alleged violations of the Maryland Application Fee Law and the Consumer Protection Act.

Under state law, if a landlord collects an application fee greater than $25, the landlord may keep only the portion it costs for a credit check or other expenses related to the application.

The holder fees that prospective residents paid when they applied for a unit were $500 for a single veteran and $750 for a couple, according to the settlement. Then the veteran would pay a deposit of $1,500 or $2,250 to secure a spot, the settlement says.

Infantino, who signed the settlement, did not return messages seeking comment. He emailed to say that he was in Asia last week.

A corporate spokesman said in an email that the developer needed to build far more units than Baltimore County zoning allowed to make the project work financially and grant affordable housing rates for veterans.

The spokesman said the developer never collected deposits, but rather application fees from about 120 people, and applicants required screening to verify military service. At the state's request in 2010, the developer agreed to provide refunds to anyone who asked in writing, and issued the last of those refunds in 2012.

Philip Ziperman, the assistant attorney general who handled the case, said the office tried to resolve the complaints through mediation with Infantino, to no avail. "It shouldn't have been this arduous or lengthy a process," Ziperman said.

The settlement imposed a $10,000 fine on Infantino and his companies, which could be reduced to $5,000 if they meet all terms of the agreement.

Under the settlement, they must give Gansler's office a list of those who paid fees and deposits, while identifying any amounts that have not been refunded. Until those names are provided, officials do not know exactly how many people are owed money. The information is due July 30.

State Del. John Olszewski Jr. said he is pleased that people will get restitution. Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat, hopes that the development process is transparent and takes residents' concerns into account.

"I think there's a sense of disappointment — rightfully so, given the way that hopes were built up," he said. "To hear nothing and see no progress, I guess it does leave a bad taste in one's mouth."

Community concerns

Over the past few years, area residents have crowded community meetings on the future of Fort Howard. Many believe Munshell's plans are outsized for the peninsula, where narrow North Point Road is the main thoroughfare.

Some object to the idea of developing publicly owned land for private profit.

"We feel like what's going to happen here is a gated community," said community activist Russ Donnelly, who lives in nearby Edgemere. "Somebody's going to get wealthy off of waterfront property. ... We find it very distasteful."

Alice Benner considered moving to Bayside. She wanted to live near Clasing, who is her brother, and his wife.

When the development failed, she decided to remain in her Dundalk home of 57 years. She got her deposit money back but can't recall how much it was. She has no interest in moving to the new development planned at Fort Howard.

"I don't think it's a good idea," said Benner, whose late husband was a veteran. "For one thing, it's too congested, traffic-wise. There's only one way in and one way out. I wouldn't recommend it."

The land is zoned for only about 550 units, so Munshell will have to go through a special county review process, which would require a resolution sponsored by the County Council member who represents the district.

He said there will be opportunity for resident input. His company hopes to submit an application to the county in about a month.

"We have to, by the [county] process, work with the community to iron out any differences," Munshell said.

County Councilman John Olszewski Sr. has supported the concept of a veterans housing development at Fort Howard, but with the councilman stepping down at the end of the year, it's not known who will represent the community. The County Council election is in November.

The latest proposal has the backing of Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat whose district includes Fort Howard. He said in a statement that he is pleased that veterans who put down deposits could finally get refunds under the settlement with Gansler's office.

"Maryland veterans risked their lives for our country and deserve a first-rate, affordable facility that will also be a good neighbor to the surrounding community," Ruppersberger said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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