Some skeptical of new plans to develop VA site at Fort Howard

Eighty-eight-year-old Alfred Clasing Jr. and his wife, Marie, had hoped to spend their final years at a retirement community for veterans at Fort Howard, part of a scenic Baltimore County peninsula that juts into the Chesapeake Bay.

But a developer's ambitious blueprint for the federally owned property fell through, contributing to a decade of inactivity at the site. Now, even as the government and another developer work on a project that would bring about 1,300 residential units for veterans and others to the 94-acre site, the Clasings doubt they will ever find a home there.

"I don't think we'll live long enough," said Marie, 91.

Last week, the government announced that it had finalized a long-term lease with Fort Howard Development LLC for the historic former Fort Howard Veterans Administration Medical Center campus. In addition to the residences, plans call for shops and medical facilities in a project that the VA hopes will be a national model for housing former service members and their families.

"They are our priority," developer Tim Munshell said, adding that the development would be built over 10 years. "It's going to be a great community."

From 1943 through 2002, the VA operated a hospital on the waterfront property at the tip of the North Point peninsula. Today, historic buildings there are boarded up, with weeds overgrown around them. A small outpatient clinic still operates.

To Clasing and other area veterans, the site has a sacred place in American history. It was there that British troops landed in 1814 in their attempt to capture and burn Baltimore.

Clasing and a group he leads, Save Fort Howard, say the site should be reserved exclusively for veterans.

"Once it's gone to be commercially used, then it's going to be gone forever," said Clasing, an Essex resident who served in the Navy in World War II.

Munshell's plans, announced in 2011, call for "veteran-preferred" housing, meaning that veterans would be first on any waiting list, but others could also apply.

Federal officials say the development will offer veterans housing at various prices, with categories to include active adult living, assisted living and skilled nursing. They want to set aside 10 acres for a possible veterans' home.

The project would also have 50 supportive housing units for formerly homeless, at-risk veterans. Under the agreement, Fort Howard Development would be responsible for expanding the outpatient clinic into a state-of-the art facility. Munshell envisions a retail component of less than 40,000 square feet, with service-related businesses such as a bank, dry cleaner, coffee shop and pharmacy.

"We've been very focused on doing the best we can to find a developer that will proceed and provide the benefits to veterans that we anticipate," said Paul MacPherson, director of the enhanced-use leasing program for the VA. "Because of the challenges we had with the first lessee, we worked as hard as we can to make sure this one's done right."

Fee settlement

The previous developer's proposal, Bayside at Fort Howard, featured residences, a large marina, shops and other amenities. But those plans never materialized. The developer, John Infantino, clashed with county officials on zoning and tax issues, saying regulations made the project financially unworkable.

"Given today's financing marketplace, it is highly improbable that the project can be developed under the same constraints that we were faced with," Infantino told The Baltimore Sun in 2009.

After the VA terminated its lease for Infantino's project that year, some people had trouble collecting fees that had been paid to reserve residences at Bayside.

Clasing, for example, paid a $750 application fee. When the project fell through and he didn't get his money back, he complained to the Maryland attorney general's office. In 2011, he received a refund check — but it bounced, according to documents Clasing provided to The Baltimore Sun.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler recently reached a settlement with Infantino and two of his companies over allegations that deposits of prospective residents were kept even though the housing was not built at Fort Howard. According to Gansler's office, "holder fees" and deposits were collected from veterans and their spouses who wanted to live at Bayside. The state's Consumer Protection Division alleged violations of the Maryland Application Fee Law and the Consumer Protection Act.

Under state law, if a landlord collects an application fee greater than $25, the landlord may keep only the portion it costs for a credit check or other expenses related to the application.