Wednesday, 29 January 2014 14:22

The future of the Fort Howard site remains unresolved, and the Save Fort Howard group wants answers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. photo by Roland Dorsey

New lease is expected within next 30 days

by Ben Boehl

Braving a cold winter night and snow from the night before, between 75 to 100 people turned up at the North Point-Edgemere Volunteer Fire Department hall on Jan. 22 for a meeting organized by Russell Donnelly and the Save Fort Howard group to talk about the future of Fort Howard.
    The Fort Howard VA Medical Center closed in 2002. In the years since, two different development plans have been agreed to by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
    The first was proposed by Federal Development LLC in 2007. It was called Bayside at Fort Howard and was promoted as a retirement community for veterans with over 1,300 residential units.
    The announcement of the project included a ribbon-cutting that featured local, state and federal politicians.
    The deal fell through after complaints of inaction by Federal Development  and allegations of financial improprieties.
    It was announced in late 2011 that another company, Fort Howard Development LLC, had taken over the project. Tim Munshell was listed as the developer.
    Over two years later, there is still uncertainty on the project. The Fort Howard Development website has been deactivated, and it did not list any contact information when it was in operation.
    Jaime Lennon, a senior aide to U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, confirmed that Munshell’s project is still in the works.
    “Tim Munshell has been the developer for quite some time, and it’s our understanding that the VA is in the process of formalizing the lease with him now,” Lennon said.
    R. David Edwards, chief of public and community relations for the VA Maryland Health Care System, said that the VA is still in the process of approving the project and he believes the deal could be finalized within the next 30 days.
    “The VA signed an initial lease with Fort Howard Development LLC in December 2011 regarding the development of the Fort Howard campus.  Since the signing of the lease, VA and Fort Howard Development have been busy preparing environmental impact studies, reviewing design plans for a new VA outpatient clinic at Fort Howard, holding meetings with officials from the State Historical Preservation Office, and negotiating to finalize a development plan for the campus,” Edwards said in a e-mail to The Eagle.
    “Once the project has been approved by VA, Fort Howard Development LLC will be submitting a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to Baltimore County, which will then be open for public comment through the local zoning process.”
    The Fort Howard opposition group says it still wants answers. The group wants to know if Fort Howard Development has gotten the enhanced use lease (EUL) approved by the VA. Donnelly said it appears that the EUL currently in force is the one left over from the Federal Development project.
    “We have seen three different concept plans. We understand there is a new plan. We are still waiting to see the latest plan,” Donnelly said.
    “I’ve read the documents, and it appears all they are doing is putting the new developer in the old developer’s place.”
    John Long, president and founder of Clean Bread and Cheese Creek, said he works with government contracts at his place of employment and agrees with Donnelly that a new government contract must be created.
    “Anytime a contract is renewed, the process starts from the ground up. And that is if it is the same company and process, which here is not the case,” Long explained. “It doesn’t matter if it is a small business or a billon-dollar corporation, the contract [starts over].”
    Some of the members of the audience, including House of Delegates candidate Ed Crizer, wanted to know if Donnelly and his Save Fort Howard group planned to incorporate the group so they could take legal action against the VA. Donnelly responded that it is too early to look at litigation.
    “There is no lease at this time, so we can’t take them to court. The case would be thrown out,” Donnelly said. “Once a case is dismissed, you can’t bring it back up.”
    Essex resident Alfred Clasing Jr., a World War II veteran, said he was looking forward to moving into the Bayside at Fort Howard project and stated that he is not as pleased with the Fort Howard Development project, which he believes will be more open to the general public. Clasing said he is worried that Fort Howard will no longer be exclusively a home for veterans.
    “We can only take so much development along the North Point Peninsula. If Fort Howard falls, 20 years from now that park will follow, too,” Clasing said.
    One Fort Howard Development plan called for the building of 1,400 units, which has Edgemere residents concerned about traffic and the size of North Point Road. Edgemere resident Scott Pappas argued that the road is too small and raised the possibility of widening North Point Road from two lanes to four.
    Del. Pat McDonough (7th District) attended the meeting and said the best way to oppose the project is to stop it from the beginning. McDonough agreed with Pappas’ assessment that North Point Road will need to be expanded to accommodate greater traffic flow to and from Fort Howard. McDonough said that money will come from the state transportation fund. He added that it could be placed in this year’s budget. He is advising local delegates to look for it and to place an amendment to get such a road project out of the budget.
    “I don’t think it passes the smell test. I’m with you. I support you on this,” McDonough told the group. “There are some serious questions on how this process has been handled.”
    Del. John Olszewski Jr. said that McDonough’s idea is not that simple and there is no hidden budget.
    “I would like to dispel the notion that there is a hidden agenda in the budget. The fact is there is no money included in the budget for the purpose [McDonough] suggested,” Olszewski said.  “It was irresponsible for him to suggest that this might be true when, in fact, one can know whether or not such funding is in the budget documentation that has been released.” 
    Olszewski added that he has not heard any new information from the VA and wants the agency to answer questions about decision timetables, development details and other matters.
    “First, the veterans who have served this county in myriad capacities have earned the right to the loyalty and care of national, state and local governments.  On this, we cannot and must not waiver,” Olszewski said. 
    “Second, as this process unfolds and development of Fort Howard takes shape, the federal government and Baltimore County must remember that the voice of the community surrounding Fort Howard is the most important voice in the room, behind only our most honorable veterans.”