Ruxton residents oppose mental health center in community

Ruxton residents concerned about the destruction of the historic Hawks house were somewhat reassured by the new owner's plan for the property: He was building his dream home — a six-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot house with soaring ceilings — and planned to live there for years to come.

But it wasn't long before the house on Labelle Avenue was on the market. And now members of the community say they are horrified to learn their new neighbors will be mental health patients in a high-end rehabilitation house run by Towson-based Sheppard Pratt Medical Systems.

Close to 250 residents attended a meeting held Wednesday to demand answers from the hospital. Sheppard Pratt says residents at the facility will be treated for issues such as depression and anxiety, though officials acknowledged some of them may also suffer from substance abuse problems.

"Now I have a house across the street from me filled with people who have issues that I am not fully aware of," Tom Costello said before the meeting. "It's not much of a neighborhood when you have strangers being shuffled in and out, and the strangers are being treated for some kind of problem."

Hospital officials said they expect to complete the deal for the house next month, and will use it to treat wealthy patients who are transitioning from treatment at The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt a private mental-health care facility where rates start at $2,000 per day.

"We expect this home to be a healing environment. This is our vision of The Retreat Group Home at Labelle," Donald Ross, The Retreat's medical director, said at the meeting.

Ross said he's received messages expressing anger and anxiety, but added, "This really is not some real estate plot or a focus that is dangerous to your children. … We're not trying to hide anything. We plan to be very good neighbors."

Some residents said they haven't slept well since learning of the hospital's plans Friday. They have worked to rally neighbors through Facebook and email campaigns.

Hospital officials tried to remain calm in answering questions as they faced a hostile, emotional crowd. Some in the crowd were on the verge of tears. Many took notes, some used video cameras and some shouted questions from their seats.

"I don't think any of this is insurmountable," said Bonnie Katz, vice president for business development and support operations. She suggested forming a neighborhood advisory group to work through some issues and indicated that the hospital would be willing to address parking concerns or enclose part of the property, and would not be treating patients who suffer from severe disorders like schizophrenia.

Ruxton residents have long been protective of the secluded nature of their community. The original plans for the light rail line included a Ruxton or Riderwood station, but angry residents lobbied hard enough to eliminate it.

Noted Maryland sculptress Rachel Marshall Hawks and Arthur W. Hawks, a former city editor of the Baltimore News, moved into the original house after their marriage in 1901. Ringed by porches on a double lot and built for $6,000, the house eventually held five generations of the Hawks family, including a Civil War veteran and Friars' Club founder. Parties held at the house attracted the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and H.L. Mencken.

But the deteriorating, historic shingled home was razed three years ago, much to the dismay of those who appreciated its architecture and the fact that it had stayed in the same family for more than a century.

Jim Carroll bought the house in 2008 for $475,000 and demolished it to make way for a sprawling abode for his family of four. With one child away at college and another preparing for graduate school, he and his wife decided to buy something smaller, and put the house on the market for just under $1.7 million, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun last November.

He said then that he did not consider selling the property until a prospective buyer asked to see it.

Carroll did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Some people who attended Wednesday's meeting had ties to the Sheppard Pratt — either as employees, the children of employees or former patients — and were longtime Ruxton residents.

Many said the planned facility is a business at its core and, given the transitional nature of its residents, would not be a good fit for the community.

Neighbor Pat Wong called the decision short-sighted.

"They have a property, but they don't have a plan and so the community is left with questions," she said. Assuming the deal is made, she said, she's left with only one option: "Sell at a loss."

State officials have worked to stem the proliferation of group homes for youth. Locally, many are located in Randallstown, Woodlawn and in parts of southwestern Baltimore County, but county officials said they are powerless to stop this sale.

County Councilwoman Vickie Almond said she believes the process for approving group homes in residential areas is flawed and that she will take up the issue with state lawmakers.

Costello said, "There's a reason why you don't put businesses in the middle of neighborhoods. There's a reason why you don't put mental health treatment centers in the middle of neighborhoods."'

A previous version of this story incorrectly described the types of treatment that are planned for the Sheppard Pratt facility on Labelle Avenue. The Sun regrets the error.

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