The Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday approved the sale of the Spring Grove Hospital Center’s 175-acre campus in Catonsville to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for a nominal $1, despite concerns from mental health groups that the state lacks detailed plans to replace services provided by the centuries-old psychiatric facility.
The university’s retiring president, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, told state officials that acquiring the sprawling property neighboring UMBC’s campus has been an ambition of his for three decades. Hrabowski said the university has no plans yet for the property, which it will lease back to the state for years to come.
The psychiatric hospital, the largest in the state’s system with 375 patient beds, will continue operating for the immediate future, but will be closed eventually under the deal and a master facilities plan released last year by the Maryland Department of Health, which owns and runs the facility. For now, though, the health department will lease the property back from UMBC for 10 years with options to extend it up to 10 years more.
Mental health advocacy groups and labor unions representing the hospital’s roughly 800 staffers objected to the sale at Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis, complaining that the state health department had not consulted with them and that the agency lacks detailed plans on how to replace Spring Grove’s much-needed beds and services.
The state has struggled for years with a lack of psychiatric facilities and services, particularly for people facing criminal charges or held in state prisons, and courts have ruled repeatedly that lengthy delays and waitlists for court-ordered mental health evaluations or treatments violate the law.
Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader said plans to replace Spring Grove will be developed over the next decade or two, but that selling the property amounted to an “action-oriented plan” to move forward. The department’s 2021 facilities master plan calls for patients to be transferred out of Spring Grove beginning in 2032, but does not detail where they would go.
The master plan noted that the Spring Grove Hospital Center complex is dilapidated and outdated, with some buildings dating to the early 1800s, and that replacing or renovating the facility to meet adequate modern standards would be “cost-prohibitive.”
Gov. Larry Hogan, whose administration proposed the sale, voted in favor of the transfer. So did state Treasurer Dereck E. Davis, a Democrat appointed by the General Assembly.
Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot attempted to delay the sale and cast the lone vote opposing the move. Franchot, a candidate for governor, said he was baffled by the outgoing Hogan administration’s sudden rush to transfer the property and questioned the administration’s appraisal of the sprawling property as worthless. The 175-acre campus, just off Interstate 695, includes significant swaths of undeveloped land that have long been coveted by developers.
Nelson Reichart, deputy secretary for the state Department of General Services, said staff appraisers pegged the land value at $20 million based on “comparable sales in the area.” But Reichart said estimated costs to deal with issues on the land — $70 million to demolish most of the campus buildings, another $48 million for required renovations for historically protected structures and about $14 million to deal with stormwater issues — wiped out any actual value.
The state did not seek a second outside appraisal, Reichart said, because officials felt confident others would reach similar conclusions.
Franchot also noted that transferring the property essentially locked in plans to shutter the hospital and said he didn’t understand why the Hogan administration couldn’t delay the transfer until meeting with mental health advocates and community groups or devise more specific plans for replacing Spring Grove’s services.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones voiced support for the sale in a statement after its approval.
“The future of the Spring Grove property has been debated for 20 years. I’m pleased to see this property finally being transferred to a trusted community partner like UMBC,” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat. “Our commitment to the Spring Grove Hospital and its employees remains strong and I’m confident in their shared future.”
Lori Doyle, director of public policy for the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland, agreed that Spring Grove Hospital has badly deteriorated and needs to be renovated or replaced. But Doyle said the Hogan administration plan for the property “kicks the decrepit can down the road for another 10 years” by leaving the hospital open indefinitely.
Dan Martin, senior director of public policy for the Mental Health Association of Maryland, said Spring Grove has been “crumbling for decades” and that the state should have gone to work years ago replacing or improving facilities instead of allowing conditions for patients and staff members to become “completely unacceptable.”
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But Martin said neither his group nor other mental health advocacy organizations were consulted on the decision to sell the campus and that they likewise objected to the sale without clear plans for how the state will provide the same services elsewhere.
“There haven’t been any … vacant beds for decades, and there are no plans to create vacant beds,” said Rosemary Wertz of AFT-Healthcare Maryland, a labor union that represents doctors and many other health care professionals at the hospital.
Wertz called the sale a “premature decision” without a “detailed plan of action to take care of these patients.”
Public-sector union AFSCME Council 3, which represents much of the staff at Spring Grove, also objected to the sale, contending it “functionally expedites the closure of the largest state psychiatric hospital in Maryland.”
Critics of the move to approve Spring Grove’s sale to UMBC all stressed on Wednesday that they supported the university and saw it as a promising new steward for the sprawling property.
Schrader, the health secretary, repeatedly said that selling the Spring Grove Hospital property is “not the end of the process, but the very beginning” of a yearslong effort to replace the facility’s mental health services. Schrader acknowledged he likely will leave office by the beginning of next year — Hogan is term-limited and not running for reelection — but said “we can get a lot of work done in the next eight months.”
The Baltimore Sun’s Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.