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Crisis center site unsure


Facing fierce opposition from residents in three Howard County communities, backers of a proposed $6.5 million crisis center have decided to delay a decision on where to locate the facility.

A coalition of three nonprofit groups behind the plan had hoped to find a site by the end of this month. But now they are postponing that decision for 60 to 90 days.

"We're just taking a step back," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, one of the nonprofits involved. "I think we want to process all of the information that we've received."

Ingram said the three locations originally proposed for the 24-hour facility - near homes and schools in Kings Contrivance, Long Reach and Ellicott City - are still under consideration.

"We spent a whole year finding those sites, so that's why they're not going off the table," said Jean Moon, a spokeswoman for the project. "If people don't want us to build on the three sites that we have, we need for people to come up with alternatives."

Moon said the group is considering other options, though she declined to be specific.

"We also had people emerge during this last month with some suggestions and offers of help that hadn't been available before," she said. "There may be other collaborations that might be possible.

"We have had support come from people in positions of responsibility and authority in the community who want this to happen, and we are exploring some options with them. No one has said, 'I have a building to give you' or 'I have a building to sell you at cut-rate.'"

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, who has opposed placing the facility in a neighborhood, said one site under consideration is a Rouse Co.-owned parcel in Gateway Industrial Park.

Moon said that site was considered earlier in the process and was not considered "optimal" for several reasons, including hazardous waste contamination.

"We need to be sensitive to the fact that we would be putting mothers and their young children there," she said.

But Gray said preliminary tests had shown no danger. He said he would support further testing.

"We think we can make the Gateway site work," he said.

The coalition hopes to build the Crisis and Support Center of Howard County to provide 24-hour counseling and shelter for county residents who are homeless, runaways or victims of rape or domestic violence. The 33,000-square- foot facility also would provide psychiatric emergency housing.

The coalition comprises Grassroots, the Domestic Violence Center and the STTAR Center, which helps victims of sexual abuse. The agencies, housed in separate facilities, intend to share office space at the new site.

One proposed location is near Long Reach High School and another is near Hammond High School in Kings Contrivance. A third possible site is on the border of Ellicott City and Elkridge, near Maryland School for the Deaf.

Part of the appeal of the locations is economic: The owners are offering to donate the land or sell it at a deep discount. Howard County owns the Ellicott City site, a former horse farm. Rouse owns the two other locations.

Hundreds of residents objected to the plans at public meetings in Long Reach and Kings Contrivance this month, saying the center would hurt property values, increase traffic and pose a threat to safety.

Both village boards voted unanimously to oppose the projects. Gray and other politicians vowed to block public funding for the center if organizers tried to build it in a residential area.

Also this month, about 60 to 80 people attended a private meeting of the Brightfield Farms homeowners association to discuss the plan, according to Sandy Ader, president of the Brightfield board, which represents 330 townhouses near the Ellicott City site.

Most residents at that meeting expressed similar concerns about the plan, though many said they would support a crisis center in a nonresidential setting, Ader said. The homeowners association is distributing ballots to its members this week and will take a position on the plan after the results are tabulated, probably within two weeks, Ader said.

A second meeting for residents near the Ellicott City site is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Waterloo Elementary School, 5940 Waterloo Road. That meeting will be open to the public.

Supporters of the crisis center have said they were surprised by the strong opposition.

"I found the negativity to be shocking," said Cheryl DePetro, executive director of the STTAR Center. "Certainly we expected to hear from people. Something new and unknown can be frightening. [But] we see victims of child abuse and sexual assault and there's nothing to be afraid of when you're working with victims."

DePetro said she has been heartened by support some people have expressed for the center, including a flurry of letters to the editor in Thursday's Columbia Flier.

"I'm still encouraged," she said. "We feel like this is a good project, and it's something that will be beneficial in the long run for the community, and so I'm still optimistic and we're still working on it. I feel like the project is moving forward, but the site continues to be one of our biggest concerns."

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