Hospitals' acreage is lure for developers

The Baltimore Sun

Chicken coops and cornfields surrounded the state asylum in Owings Mills when it opened almost 120 years ago. The quiet countryside was considered by 19th-century health experts as the best place to care for the developmentally disabled, and over the years the number of patients grew from nine to nearly 3,000.

Today, the Rosewood Center complex is a shrinking oasis of undeveloped land near highways and shopping centers. The number of patients has dwindled to fewer than 150, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has announced plans to close the facilities next year.

As that closing nears, neighbors, preservationists and legislators are worried about the fate of the property.

Its location in Owings Mills, a designated growth area of Baltimore County, and the parcel's size - more than 200 acres at the edge of the prosperous Caves Valley - make it all the more attractive to private developers interested in building homes, offices and shops.

"No couple of hundred acres in a developed area exists elsewhere in Baltimore County," says Joseph M. Cronyn, a partner at real estate consulting firm Lipman, Frizzell & Mitchell. "This is it."

Rosewood is just one example of a broader trend across Maryland, as sprawling state hospitals are shuttered. Their lands, once isolated from homes and commercial centers, have been surrounded by suburban development, triggering concern among neighbors.

In Anne Arundel County, 548 acres have been preserved as open space at the Crownsville Hospital Center, a state psychiatric hospital that closed in 2004. Although county officials had wanted to preserve the rest of the property, state officials sought offers last month from developers on 532 acres that have been declared surplus. Residents have long been worried about houses being crowded onto the property.

In Carroll County, the Springfield Hospital Center's vacant brick buildings have been rehabbed for commercial offices and community college classrooms. Sykesville residents voted in a 1999 referendum to annex the property so that local officials would have control over how it was developed.

And in Catonsville, the 200-acre Spring Grove Hospital Center has been eyed by a local developer for a mix of shops, offices, apartments and a hotel. Residents, who expressed opposition several years ago to a juvenile detention facility being built on the property, have asked officials to set aside some land for athletic fields.

At Rosewood, suggestions have included homes, parkland and an expansion of Villa Julie College, which announced last week that it is changing its name to Stevenson University.

"What's going to happen with Rosewood? - that's the most common question asked in the community," says Jim Angelone, president of the Greater Greenspring Association.

Some of Rosewood's land has been set aside for a public school, and a large parcel has been donated for a nature preserve. But some land has also been sold off to developers for houses and businesses. Since 1998, more than half of the property, which once totaled 800 acres, has been sold or donated.

The loss of the open space explains some of the concern about the future of Rosewood, community leaders and elected officials say.

"There's been no rhyme or reason to what has happened," says Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, an Owings Mills Democrat. "People are upset because they see development all over Owings Mills."

Today, Rosewood sprawls across 210 acres, but 75 acres are under contract for sale. About 20 acres in a flood plain are unsuitable for development, according to state officials.

Villa Julie College, which is expanding from its original campus in Stevenson to an 80-acre parcel in Owings Mills, went on the record swiftly with its interest in buying some or all of Rosewood. Within weeks of O'Malley's announcement in January, the college sent a letter to state officials about a possible purchase.

Several other proposals - including one that would have designated Rosewood property for use as a park - were introduced by state lawmakers, though none won approval.

Some people who live near Rosewood are considering emulating the Hunt Valley residents who saved nearly 300 acres of land from development several years ago by purchasing it themselves, establishing an equestrian center and, in the process, one of the state's most popular steeplechase races.

"We'd like to preserve what's left of the rural character of the neighborhood," says Christy DiPietro, who has lived near Rosewood for about 17 years. "We hold out some hope that we could get a group of residents to buy some of the land."

State analysts figure that the fair market value of each acre at Rosewood is about $30,000, meaning the sale of the remaining 115 acres would generate about $3.45 million.

For the state to sell the property, the Department of General Services would have to determine that the land was not needed by another state agency. The state Board of Public Works - made up of the governor, treasurer and comptroller - would then have to approve the sale.

Because it determines how many houses or what kinds of businesses might be allowed to be built, county zoning also "dictates, to some extent, the value of the property," says Cronyn, the real-estate consultant.

Rosewood is currently designated for low-density housing.

Regardless of zoning, finding a buyer for the land wouldn't be difficult, according to Walter Patton, a principal at commercial real estate firm KLNB Inc.

"There are any number of large developers who are going to be interested," he says. "It's hugely valuable."

By the time O'Malley made his January announcement in the snow to close Rosewood, the number of residents at the facility had dropped to about 150. And the decision came after decades of reports detailing abuse and neglect.

But O'Malley is not the first official - or governor, for that matter - who has announced plans to close Rosewood.

In 1973, the Maryland secretary of health and mental hygiene said Rosewood would be closed by 1985. Gov. Harry Hughes announced a plan in 1983 to gradually move most of the mentally disabled patients at Rosewood into community residential programs. And Gov. William Donald Schaefer declared, in 1989, that Rosewood would be closed by 1995.

Although Rosewood remained open, state officials say the gradual decline in the number of patients there reflects the shift in public policy and the changing philosophy about care of the developmentally disabled.

"That's the historic arc, from creating large state institutions to one where the vast majority of people are treated in the community," says John M. Colmers, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

About a dozen Rosewood residents ordered there by courts will likely be transferred to Springfield Hospital Center, which treats patients with psychiatric disorders, Colmers says.

The rest of Rosewood's residents would be transferred to group homes, private facilities or to one of three other state-run facilities for the developmentally disabled, officials say.

Some relatives of Rosewood residents have hired a lawyer and are making a final push to keep the facility open. They fear that moving could be traumatic for disabled adults who have lived at Rosewood for nearly their entire lives. And some also worry about the conditions at group homes, which are not inspected frequently and do not provide 24-hour medical care.

"It sounds beautiful - to move these people out into homes in the community - but it's not realistic," says Harry Yost, whose son - born with spinal meningitis that left him blind, deaf and mute - has spent 46 of his 51 years at Rosewood. "The ones left at Rosewood really need the most care."

Colmers says the state is working to train staff from the Developmental Disabilities Administration to inspect group homes when they visit clients. "There are ways we can work smarter."

That Rosewood's closure is actually reflected in the state's budget plans is significant, Colmers says. "I think that's one of the big differences from what's been said in the past."

Others, too, are convinced that this could be the actual end for Rosewood.

Zirkin is one of them, saying, "Rosewood's time has come."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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