Defunct coal-fired plant towers to be ‘imploded’; Baltimore County weighs proposal to replace with almost 300 townhomes

Published on: August 19, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: August 19, 2022 12:50 PM EDT

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The 300-foot-tall smokestacks that have towered over the Gunpowder River and its creeks for over a half-century fell Friday morning in Bowleys Quarters as demolition crews tear down the remaining structures of a shuttered coal-fired power plant.

The planned destruction removed the last remaining structures at the defunct Charles P. Crane Generating Station, and comes as Baltimore County planners are weighing a request by property owner Forsite Development Inc. to extend public water and sewer lines to the property.

Forsite, a North Carolina-based firm that redevelops decommissioned industrial sites, needs the approval to move forward plans to build 285 townhomes on sprawling waterfront land zoned for limited residential development. The proposal has virtually no support among county officials nor nearby residents, who want to see the property preserved as a natural park.

The old utility station closed in 2018 as part of a settlement between its former operators and state regulators that alleged the coal-fired plant exceeded emission caps for hydrogen chloride and carbon monoxide — toxic smog-forming gases that can irritate skin and eyes and cause fatigue, headaches, dizziness or nausea — and that operators didn’t adequately test for emissions.

Plans for the future use of more than 150 acres on the eastern Baltimore County peninsula — which, until February, included a state-approved proposal to convert the coal plant to a utility fueled by natural gas — have riled neighbors and environmentalists since.

“This plant just happens to be in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, in the critical area, surrounded by million-dollar houses,” said Joanne Hock, a longtime Bowleys Quarters resident.

“The people here really are warriors when it comes to what they want to see happen in their community,” she said.

Built and run for years by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, the 400-megawatt Crane plant — named after a popular past BGE president — was one of a half-dozen large power plants that began supplying power to Marylanders in the 1950s and following decade.

Bowleys Quarters residents failed to thwart the utility’s construction in the early 1960s, said Jim Hock, president of the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association. Decades of opposition from environmental advocates and community groups followed as the plant changed hands and violated environmental protection regulations.

Operators are still trying to remediate an oil spill that occurred on the site several years ago under a former owner, Jim Hock said. And last month, a titanium fire burned through some buildings at the old station.

Forsite Development says it acquired the property in September from equity-backed firm Middle River Power. The Chicago-based company bought the utility station for roughly $17.2 million in 2016 through its affiliate C.P. Crane LLC.

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Middle River Power’s plans to reopen the coal-fired generator as a natural gas-powered plant revived legal battles between environmental groups, Bowleys Quarters residents and state regulators after the Public Service Commission approved the proposal in 2019.

But in February, Middle River Power notified state regulators it was abandoning the project; the company didn’t meet the deadline to start building the natural gas-powered facility after the Public Service Commission signed off, which sunk the plans, Jim Hock said.

State land records show the old Crane station properties were acquired from C.P. Crane LLC and Middle River Power through a special warranty deed for $10 and “other good and valuable consideration,” according to the deed.

Reached by phone Thursday, Forsite CEO Tom McKittrick wouldn’t clarify terms of the sale. A database of Maryland property records shows no payments by Forsite nor Bowleys Quarters Investments LLC, the listed landowner.

McKittrick and Forsite’s chief operating officer, Ryan Ford, wouldn’t comment on the proposed townhouse plan Forsite quickly devised after the company acquired the property in September.

Forsite pared their 400-townhome plan to 285 after opposition from neighbors like Jim Hock, who told the developer the project’s scale wasn’t doable on land zoned to allow only up to 75 homes to be built (the power plant was approved by way of special exception, and since operations have ended, the land’s typical zoning restrictions apply).

To get the project built, Forsite would need county planners, the Baltimore County Council and the Maryland Department of the Environment to agree to extend public water and sewer lines to the property, which runs along the county’s Urban Rural Demarcation Line (colloquially called the URDL) — a tool for growth management that limits public water and sewer delivery to just one-third of the county in suburban neighborhoods surrounding Baltimore City.

The line is meant to preserve the rural character of northern parts of the county, where the C.P. Crane property is located. Planning department staffers recommended the Planning Board deny the request.

“Other than [Forsite representatives], there was not one person who testified in favor” of amending the county’s Urban Rural Demarcation Line during a July hearing before the Planning Board, said Republican Councilman David Marks, who is running against Democrat Crystal Francis to represent the waterfront community in the redrawn 5th District.

The board is expected to make a decision at its Sept. 1 meeting, according to Marks and Jim Hock.

Without backing from outgoing Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Democrat who currently represents Bowleys Quarters, nor Marks, Forsite’s plan seems unlikely. Even if the developer is greenlighted to use municipal water and sewer lines, Forsite would also need the County Council to either put forward their proposal as a planned unit development or get the zoning changed through the county’s quadrennial rezoning process.

“I don’t see that happening,” Jim Hock said.

Neither does Marks.

“I believe the momentum is building toward that property being added to a nearby park” by leveraging federal, state and local funds, Marks said.

“I would love to see a waterfront trail that [is] part of a larger regional trail park network,” Marks said.

County police and fire authorities as well as state Natural Resources Police will wall off Carroll Island and Seneca Park roads at 6:30 a.m. Friday, with the implosion scheduled for 8 a.m. The U.S. Coast Guard will also provide oversight.

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