Zoning change halts plans for Fort Howard development
The Baltimore County Council moved this week to make major development on the site of the long-shuttered Fort Howard Veterans Affairs hospital — a waterfront property targeted for new construction for more than a decade — nearly impossible.
That could change, County Councilman Todd Crandell says — but only if the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its developer propose a plan that’s acceptable to him and the site’s neighbors.
“What has been presented so far won’t work,” the Dundalk Republican said Wednesday. “I want a plan that’s going to work.”
The council voted Tuesday to slash the maximum number of homes that could be built on the 104-acre site in Dundalk from 572 to just over100. That wasamong more than 500 land-use decisions made
by the council during its quadrennial review of zoning across the county.
The VA closed the hospital in 2002, but plans to redevelop the site have stalled.
The current lessor of the property, Timothy Munshell of Fort Howard Development LLC, has proposed about 1,400 homes and assisted-living units, a hotel, offices and shops. Crandell has blocked that plan, which he says is too intense for the property.
Developer Armando Cignarale of Cignal Corp. has indicated an interest in exploring a partnership with Munshell. Crandell said Cignarale pitched a 400-unit development of town homes and assisted living.
Crandell drafted legislation that would have allowed the 400-unit project, but then withdrew it.
It’s not clear if Cignarale is still involved in the project. Neither Munshell nor Cignarale responded to requests for comment Wednesday.
The VA also did not respond to a request for comment.
Munshell is the second developer who has attempted to redevelop Fort Howard. John Infantino, who proposed residences, a large marina, shops and other amenities for the site, clashed with county officials on zoning and tax issues. He said regulations made the project financially unworkable and backed out.
Infantino reached an agreement with the state attorney general to return application fees paid by prospective residents, including veterans.
Reducing the allowable density on the property effectively ensures that nothing will be built at Fort Howard for the time being. Crandell said the downzoning is leverage to get the VA and Munshell to come up with a new plan.
The move had the support of neighbors, who continue to push for housing for veterans on the site.
Scott Pappas, vice president of the Fort Howard Community Association, believes it will work.
“It will lead to bringing all stakeholders to the table so we can meaningfully move for- ward,” he said.
Neighbors say they have felt left out of the planning for a parcel they see as a key piece of their community. An officer of the community association has sued the federal government in an attempt to get a copy of the lease agreement with Munshell.
Crandell said he hasn’t seen the lease, but has been told by the developer and the VA that it requires the developer to include 50 units of “supportive housing” for veterans and to preserve historic structures, including the main brick hospital building.
Both those requirements are costly, Crandell said, so a developer would need to build and sell more units to make a development viable. He said easing those provisions could make it easier for a developer to build fewer units.
“It’s an unworkable lease,” Crandell said. “We have gotten no help from the federal government.”
Neighbors say history is important. Pappas and others want any redevelopment to preserve at least some elements of the site’s military heritage.
Military history on the Fort Howard peninsula dates to the War of 1812, when British troops landed there en route to Baltimore. They were turned back by American forces.
The Army built Fort Howard in 1900. Nicknamed the “Bulldog at Baltimore’s Gate,” it served in the 1920s as headquarters for Gen. Douglas MacArthur when he was posted in the city.
The fort was decommissioned and the land was given to the VA in 1940 for a hospital — but a former Army barracks on the site was used during World War II to hold German prisoners of war.
The hospital was shuttered in 2002, and an outpatient clinic closed this year.
Pappas said a proposal that focused on veterans would continue the site’s military history.
With a more conventional redevelopment, he fears the military spirit would fade.
“In time, it will dissipate. The question is how much,” he said. “We believe it will dissipate into nothing. It will be a footnote in a history book somewhere.”
“What has been presented so far won’t work. I want a plan that’s going to work.”