In one of the more stupid and expensive real estate moves the state of Maryland has made in recent years, the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Community Development will move from its 24-year-old state-owned building in Crownsville to high-end rented offices in New Carrollton, as long planned by the O’Malley administration.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a long-time real estate deal maker, tried to cancel the deal soon after he took office. But he told reporters last month that he was told it would cost the state $68 million to walk away from the lease on the new digs signed by the O’Malley administration.
The move from the state-owned 155,000-square-foot building to a high-priced commercial building which just broke ground fulfills a 2006 campaign promise by Martin O’Malley to locate a state agency in Prince George’s County.
The move has long been opposed by Anne Arundel County officials, and Democrats and Republicans alike, from the first time it was floated five years ago. Senators, delegates, council members and county executives, along with most of the employees and their unions at the housing agency, have tried to block the move.
Not a Smart Move
In an era of “smart growth” policies, the current headquarters of the agency probably would not have been built on a parcel of land that was once part of the Crownsville State Hospital complex. It sits on a service road off the two-lane General’s Highway (Route 178), has no mass transit and few commercial services in the area.
It was probably a stupid place to put a state agency with more than 300 people. But it’s there now, and it’s long been paid for. Many of the employees live in Anne Arundel County, after all these years, and commute there by car.
It has been difficult to put a dollar-figure on the millions the move to Prince George’s County will cost the state. Many of the documents justifying the decision have been withheld from even legislators.
It is the equivalent of a family that lives in an isolated, but paid-off, house in a semi-rural area moving to a new high-rise apartment building, just to be near a Washington Metro stop.
The justification of the move has long been that there is no state agency headquartered in Prince George’s County.
This only makes sense if you choose to totally disregard the presence of the huge flagship campus of the University of Maryland in College Park and the nearby headquarters of the entire University System of Maryland, which employs more people than the housing agency.
The real reason for the move was to curry favor with the P.G. pols and was made in total disregard of sound economics and good sense.
Hogan said it was to make Anthony Brown look good. But now Hogan, not Brown, is governor, and Hogan and Maryland taxpayers will be paying for this political payoff for years to come. The developer in New Carrollton gets to pre-lease several floors of a new building.
Fate of Crownsville
The fate of the long abandoned Crownsville Hospital complex is the subject of a 20-member task force approved by the Maryland General Assembly this year.
After the hospital was closed in 2004, the last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, was willing to hand over to Anne Arundel County the 544 acres and 66 buildings on the Crownsville site that opened more than 110 years ago as the “Asylum for the Negro Insane.” The county ultimately rejected the deal, and O’Malley wasn’t interested.
Back in the day, you couldn’t have just segregated schools and housing — you had to have separate, but not so equal, hospitals for the mentally ill and the severely handicapped, lest the crazy white people have to associate with the crazy black people. Many of the patients had few relatives to take care of them, which is why the cemetery on the site is believed to hold 3,000 graves.
A site that large with that many buildings might seem ideal for development, but as noted above, in regard to the housing department headquarters, the highway access is poor. The thousands of folks who lived there at one time did not have cars. And the neighbors are quite happy with the lack of traffic. (You may have gone through the site on your way to the Renaissance Festival, which is also seeking to relocate. No one in Anne Arundel wants the traffic.)
Anne Arundel County officials would like to find some tax-generating use for the abandoned site, which currently is home to three small mental health nonprofits.
Conservative Leaning Dems
An interesting pattern showed in votes of the House of Delegates during this past session. In votes on issues like voting rights for ex-felons or business regulation and taxes, the four Democrats representing fairly conservative districts in Anne Arundel County could be found voting with the 50 Republicans in the House.
These include veteran Delegates Pam Beidle, who owns her own insurance business and is now the chairman of the delegation, and Ted Sophocleus, as well as newcomers Mark Chang and Ned Carey. Beidle, Sophocleus and Chang all represent District 32, which includes BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and the Jessup area, all the way to Laurel, which is represented by Ed DeGrange in the Senate. Carey is in a single-member delegate district, 31A, that is represented by Republican Sen. Bryan Simonaire.
Only two other Democrats in the House, Eric Bromwell and Mary Ann Lisanti, are from swing districts (Baltimore and Harford County, respectively), could be found occasionally voting with Republicans.
This is not to say these six Democrats joined the Republicans often. In fact, 95% of bills enacted at the State House pass the Maryland House and Senate by fairly lopsided margins, often unanimously or with only a handful of votes opposed. These indicate legislation where there is little controversy or major issues have already been compromised on in committee.
Only on sharply debated bills does this kind of pattern show up. It also shows how few legislative districts are really in play for both parties.
These are precisely the districts that Republicans are likely to target in 2018 legislative elections. The GOP picked up seven seats in the House last year by defeating more moderate Democrats.
Reilly Wins a Gun Bill
With zero fanfare and practically zero opposition, Sen. Ed Reilly of District 33 (Crofton, Odenton and Severna Park) won a change in Maryland handgun law that has been on the books for 14 years.
Maryland law requires that for every handgun sold, the manufacturers include a spent casing from a bullet fired from the gun, because it can potentially be used to track down the ownership of a gun used in a crime.
The system is quite cumbersome, and the Maryland State Police has 304,000 casings stored and recorded. These 304,000 casings have been used to solve just 26 crimes during the past 14 years, fewer than two a year.
Reilly’s bill eliminated the requirement for the shell casings from the manufacturers. The Senate passed the bill unanimously and there were only two dissenters in the House. It was a small, but very rare, victory for handgun owners.
Actually it was probably a bigger victory for the State Police employees who catalog, store and keep track of the casings that wind up being of little use.