Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is to announce today the creation of a community task force on the future of state-owned property at Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville - just as the state is looking at potential sites for juvenile detention facilities.
The action comes days after Smith sent the governor a letter saying he was against a plan to build a regional juvenile detention center and three smaller facilities in the county. The facilities would be designed in part to replace a portion of the troubled Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, which was closed last fall.
The state hopes to put the facilities on land that it already owns, a Department of Juvenile Services spokesman said.
"We're looking at any number of state properties [and] that would include Spring Grove," said Edward Hopkins, the spokesman. "But Spring Grove is not a likely location for what we want to do."
A state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene official said there are no plans to close the hospital - built in 1797 and the second-oldest continuously operating psychiatric hospital in the United States, according to its Web site - or to develop any property that it sits on.
But a Smith spokesman, and state Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, said Spring Grove could be seen as an attractive site for a juvenile facility because of its 200-acre size.
Smith said the state made its decision to close Hickey "rather precipitously," and added: "I want to make sure the citizens of Baltimore County are not caught off guard with some precipitous decision with respect to Spring Grove."
The 10-member, bipartisan task force will hold several community meetings and then submit by June 1 recommendations for potential future uses for the property should it become vacant. Smith would then send the recommendations to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
A spokesman for the governor did not return a call seeking comment.
Smith sent the governor a letter last week opposing the state Department of Juvenile Services 10-year master facilities plan. Smith wrote he is "particularly disappointed" in a plan to combine Baltimore City and Baltimore County into a region that would be served by a detention center in the county.
"We believe the facilities ought to be built where they're needed, and when you look at Baltimore County by itself you get a very different picture than if you look at it combined with Baltimore City," said Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for Smith. "We believe city students are better served in their own neighborhoods near their own support system."
Hopkins, the Juvenile Services spokesman, said department Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. has received Smith's letter and is preparing a response.
Zirkin, a Pikesville-Owings Mills Democrat, said he would oppose a juvenile facility at Spring Grove. He said he will push for a stipulation in the state capital budget requiring that any money spent on a juvenile detention center in the county be tied to the Hickey property.
"Hickey itself was a disaster because of sheer numbers and the way it was operated," said Zirkin, who is running for state Senate. "But the land itself was fairly remote and I believe is the appropriate location."
Elizabeth Barnard, planning and capital financing director for the state heath department, said there are no plans to close Spring Grove Hospital or any other buildings on the property, but that the department is reviewing all its properties.
Kathleen Bankert, president of the 487-home Academy Heights Civic Association in Catonsville, said she would strongly oppose a juvenile detention center at Spring Grove, which is about two miles from her neighborhood.
"We've got enough going on here in Catonsville. We have halfway houses, we have group homes, we have revisions," she said. "I don't think we need any more potential problems for the kids of the community. It would be a shame to see things change out there, and maybe not for the better."
Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.