Updated (7:21 p.m.)—"No retreat."
That's the statement on lawn signs, window signs, flyers and banners in this quiet Ruxton neighborhood, where residents are embroiled in a standoff with Sheppard Pratt Health System officials over a proposed eight-patient transitional group home.
Last Friday, the hospital closed on its $1.39 million purchase of a home in the 1500 block of Labelle Avenue, just off Bellona Avenue and behind Graul's Market. The six-bedroom, five-bathroom looks out of place among its neighbors.
Residents did not find out about the prospective sale until it was under contract and nearly complete, when hospital officials emailed community leaders on Apr. 15. The ensuing uproar led to community meetings, protests and dueling newspaper commentaries.
The property was sold in 2008 for $475,000 to James and Kathleen Carroll, who, according to state property tax records, used it as their primary residence. In 2009, the Carrolls finished the new home there, which a real estate listing now prices at $1,685,000.
"I'm not afraid of the residents that will be in there," said Marian Knott, who lives directly across Labelle Avenue from the proposed group home. "It has nothing to do with that."
Rather, the residents worry more about increased traffic and parking disrupting the neighborhood. They want neighbors who will have "a stake in the community," Knott said.
"We do not dispute the need or the merit of the program, but we do dispute the characterization of this facility as anything other than a for-profit business that more appropriately belongs on the Sheppard Pratt campus," Kathy Mountcastle, president of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, said in an email.
That's the biggest question from residents: Why here?
Transitional group homes do best in residential neighborhoods, said Bonnie Katz, a hospital spokeswoman. Buying a suitable home is also much cheaper than building one themselves.
"If we were to build something anywhere, it would probably be two years before all is said and done," she said.
Katz denied allegations that the hospital was merely in it for profit and said some residents appear to have a "lack of clarity" about the project.
"I don't know why people are saying what they're saying," she said. "I can only correct the misperceptions."
Katz denies that they "conspired" with the Carrolls to build the house in 2009. Instead the property was picked from a short list of "fewer than five" homes in a property search, she said. The hospital chose the Ruxton house for its size and proximity to its Towson campus.
On Wednesday, some workers could be seen inspecting the home. Katz said no new construction is currently planned there, and could not offer a target date for when the group home would open. Katz said the hospital would set up lines of communication for concerned neighbors.
The Baltimore Sun reported that more than 200 residents attended an emotional community meeting on the hospital campus shortly after the purchase was announced in mid-April.
The Labelle Avenue home will house low-risk patients, most of whom are suffering from depression and anxiety and transitioning from the hospital's $2,000-per-night Retreat facility. The Labelle Avenue home would be staffed around the clock, to satisfy regulations. Patients would pay $600 per night, Katz said.
"To me, it's not a group home," Knott said. "It's just a place where they're going to house patients who want treatment ... that's not a neighborhood to me."
In remarks at the April meeting, Kathy Palencar, a former president of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association and the head of the association's zoning committee, said in prepared remarks that regardless of who would be living there, such a large-scale residence would be "out of step" with the community.
"Multiple residents and staff coming and going will have an adverse affect on traffic and parking in what is already a congested neighborhood," she said. "The site is located in an established residential neighborhood, and would be unprecedented in this part of Baltimore County."
Residents continue to fight the plan with protests and messages on a website.
County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who represents Ruxton, said there's nothing in county law to keep the hospital from opening a group home in the neighborhood. Final approval rests in the state licensing process. Mountcastle said the community has not yet decided whether to challenge it.
"I don't think the community is going to give up their fight very easily," Almond said. "I think it's going to be a very difficult situation."