Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has proposed transferring the 175-acre Spring Grove Hospital Center campus to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for $1, a move that could lock in the administration’s plans to shutter the centuries-old psychiatric facility.
The hospital adjacent to the UMBC campus in Catonsville would continue operating for the immediate future even if the proposed deal is approved Wednesday by the state’s three-member Board of Public Works.
The proposed terms require UMBC to lease the property back to the state for up to 20 years — depending on whether the state exercises a pair of extensions in the lease — before taking over Spring Grove, which includes 77 buildings.
The Maryland Department of Health, which owns and runs the hospital, would pay UMBC $1-a-year in rent under the proposed lease. The lease would run 10 years with two five-year optional extensions — but would terminate immediately, turning control of the site over to UMBC, whenever the state vacates the hospital complex.
A UMBC spokesperson said the university does not have any specific, immediate plans for the sprawling hospital campus but has “talked with public officials and neighbors over decades about the university’s interest in the Spring Grove property for long-term campus expansion.”
Chase Cook, a Maryland Department of Health spokesman, said the hospital will remain open and patient services “will be unaffected for the foreseeable future.”
Developers have long eyed parcels of the campus, which includes significant tracts of undeveloped land and is located just off Interstate 695 in Catonsville. A 2012 report ordered by the state legislature suggested that parcels of the property could fetch millions from developers.
Baltimore County acquired 8.8 acres of the site for $1.32 million in 2014 to use as recreational park space.
Spring Grove, the country’s second-oldest continuously operated psychiatric hospital, was established at the site in 1797, according to its website.
“The primary purpose of this transfer to UMBC is to allow UMBC to begin their planning process and support both [Maryland Department of Health] and UMBC in long-range facilities development,” Cook said in a statement.
The $1 price tag for the 175-acre site was set through an appraisal by the state’s Department of General Services in April. Cook said the “estimated demolition, remediation and other historical preservation costs vastly exceed the value of the property unencumbered,” leading to the low valuation.
The state described the Spring Grove facilities as “functionally obsolete” and called the expense of renovating or replacing the facilities as “cost-prohibitive” in notes included on the Board of Public Works agenda. The dozens of buildings on the campus total roughly 1 million square feet of space.
In a 20-year master plan released last year, the Maryland Department of Health said many of the hospital’s buildings — some of which date to the early 19th Century — are outdated and the current campus “is not suitable for use as a modern psychiatric facility.”
The plan proposed shifting psychiatric services from Spring Grove to other state facilities beginning in 2032.
Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat who sits on the Board of Public Works and is running for governor, said he still was evaluating the potential transfer of Spring Grove ahead of the board’s Wednesday morning meeting. But Franchot said he has “very serious questions and concerns” about the proposal.
Franchot said he was particularly concerned by the “lack of transparency and community engagement” around the deal and the potential “impact of this property transfer on the availability of affordable access to comprehensive psychiatric health services that are currently offered at Spring Grove Hospital, which thousands depend on every year.”
Staff for state Treasurer Dereck E. Davis, the third member of the Board of Public Works, did not respond Monday to emails from The Baltimore Sun.
In March, the Board of Public Works approved the potential sale of 459 acres from another state-owned psychiatric hospital campus — the shuttered Crownsville Hospital Center — to Anne Arundel County, also for $1. And in 2017, the state sold more than 117 acres of the former Rosewood Center in Owings Mills to Stevenson University for $1.
Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk, whose district includes the Spring Grove Hospital campus, said there have been questions around the future of the site for years and called it “welcome news” that the property will go to UMBC if the transfer is approved.
He said he is confident the university would seek public input about the property. He wrote a letter Monday to the Board of Public Works expressing support for the transfer.
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“UMBC is one of our best assets, not only in Baltimore County, but in the state of Maryland,” said Quirk, an Oella Democrat. “I’m glad they’re going to be leading the charge.”
But labor leaders with AFSCME Council 3, which represents staff at state psychiatric facilities, including Spring Grove, sharply criticized the proposed sale on Monday and urged Franchot and Davis to vote down the deal at Wednesday’s meeting.
According to the union, about 800 people work at Spring Grove. Cook, the health department spokesman, said that “clinical employee jobs will not be directly affected during this transition period.”
Transferring the property will expedite Spring Grove’s closure and “take away critical health care options from Marylanders in need,” said Patrick Moran, the union’s president, who added that more than 90% of the patients at Spring Grove are there under court order and “have nowhere else secure to go.”
“The [Hogan] administration has had eight years to upgrade, develop or redevelop the facilities but has gone out of its way to understaff and under-resource it,” Moran said. “Hogan’s drive to degrade our public health care system is cruel, callous and disastrous as we have seen throughout the pandemic.”
The state has been plagued in recent years with a shortage of beds in psychiatric facilities and waitlists for criminal defendants ordered to receive care. Courts have ordered the state to open more beds in psychiatric hospitals, including at Spring Grove, and in 2017 a state judge attempted to hold several top state health department officials in contempt of court for failing to make enough progress.
Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this story.