The Village at Carsins Run, a 200-resident continuing care retirement community whose planned arrival in Aberdeen was nearly a decade in the making, left town in a hurry last month and now is enduring additional criticism in light of recently uncovered documents and more intense scrutiny of the company’s intentions.
After withdrawing plans in mid-March to construct the multi-million-dollar facility, Presbyterian Home of Maryland said it is still interested in building elsewhere in Harford County. But the company will have to contend with lingering questions, strong accusations, and words of caution from the mayor of the city which ran them out of town.
Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett claims Presbyterian Home never acted in good faith with the city, continually misled officials and residents, and may even have been laying out an elaborate scheme to turn The Village at Carsins Run into nothing more than a “high-priced residential community that was tax exempt,” he said.
Responding to Bennett’s accusations, Presbyterian Home representatives assert the company followed the letter of the law and that city officials may have not completely understood the process.
A Village Comes to Town
Nine years ago, Presbyterian Home came to Aberdeen with the idea of building Harford County’s first continuing care retirement community. The community would cater to active 60-year-olds living in individual units, offer assisted living options once those aging residents required additional assistance, and finally provide complete nursing care through the end of those residents’ lives.
A 138-acre parcel adjacent to Ripken Stadium was selected as the location of the community, blueprints of the facilities and amenities were drawn up, and the requisite paperwork was filed with the Maryland Department of Aging.
Aside from sporadic updates from the Presbyterian Home marketing department, there was little, if any, movement on the project for the next few years, even though plans had called for The Village at Carsins Run to break ground in 2011 and open in late 2013.
That changed early this year, when, as Bennett puts it, “Presbyterian Home went down to play games in Annapolis behind everybody’s back.”
Bennett was referring to the relationship that developed between Presbyterian Home and Del. Mary-Dulany James at the start of this year’s Maryland General Assembly session. On February 9, James introduced House Bill 584, a measure that would have provided significant city and county tax breaks to The Village at Carsins Run over the next 15 years, while, confounding some watchers, establishing a 5-percent hotel room tax.
The bill was met with immediate and intense opposition from city officials, who felt dangling their long-sought after hotel tax as a carrot to take on the sizable tax break for The Village at Carsins Run amounted to blackmail.
Had Presbyterian Home come to the city and asked for assistance or leniency for city fees and charges, Bennett said they probably would have been able to cut or discount some items. One possibility could have been trash collection fees, since The Village at Carsins Run would have its own private waste-hauling arrangement.
But that conversation never occurred.
“They never came in and asked,” Bennett said.
In fact, Bennett said Presbyterian Home never once approached the city to talk about any of the financial issues or circumstances surrounding the project. That failure to communicate made for an easy decision when James’ Presbyterian Home tax break bill was due for a hearing.
Bennett, the entire city council, and a large contingent of residents and business owners from Aberdeen were ready to travel to Annapolis to testify against James’ bill. Before they could, she pulled it from consideration.
On the day James withdrew her bill – and the chances for a tax break for their facility – Presbyterian Home announced The Village at Carsins Run was abandoning plans to build in Aberdeen and would search for a new, friendlier home in Harford County.
While the legislative effort to secure the Presbyterian Home tax break was unsuccessful, Bennett remains disgusted by the actions of James and those who supported her bill in the General Assembly – so much so that it may have had an impact on his own political career.
“The conduct of some of our members of the delegation goes beyond the pale of what we want our elected officials to do. That’s why you’ll never see me going to Annapolis as a senator or delegate in any way shape or form,” he said.
“…Subscribers Will Need to be Sent to Outside Facilities for Assisted Living and Nursing Care by 2015 and 2016…”
In the middle of the legislative brouhaha over James’ bill, Aberdeen officials became aware of documentation that seemed to confirm Presbyterian Home had not been completely honest with the city or its own prospective residents.
A Feasibility Study Review, dated July 30, 2010 from the Maryland Department of Aging to Susan Shea, Executive Director of Presbyterian Home of Maryland, Inc., first came to Aberdeen’s attention by way of city finance director Opiribo Jack – formerly an employee of the Department of Aging.
The short document, provided below, which confirms certain processes and procedures Presbyterian Home must meet to gain property authorization to operate such a facility, also contains the following curious passage:
“The utilization data in our actuarial study, dated December 31, 2008, indicates that subscribers will need to be sent to outside facilities for assisted living and nursing care by 2015 and 2016, respectively.”
Bennett said the document “very graphically tells the story,” a story he believes would have ended with The Village at Carsins Run relinquishing its 10 assisted living beds and 10 comprehensive care beds and consisting only of the planned 183 independent living units.
In other words, Bennett thinks Presbyterian Home was more interested in coming to Aberdeen to be a residential housing developer than a long-term nursing and assisted-living care provider.
“The reality is what you really have in 2016 is just a high-priced residential community that was tax exempt. That’s exactly what it is, you can’t read anything else into it,” he said.
Shea did not respond to interview inquiries, which were directed to Bel Air attorney Joe Snee, who has represented The Village at Carsins Run since it came to Aberdeen nine years ago.
Snee explained the Department of Aging statement was just part of the three-phase process of constructing the facility.
“Our first phase of the [continuing care retirement community] campus contemplated initially 10 assisted living and 10 nursing units in addition to the independent living units. The second phase planned for an additional 20 assisted and 20 nursing. That phase would have been completed by 2015 so that we could meet the needs of our residents.
“The language of the [Department of Aging] letter of approval was simply a statement to cover the unlikely eventuality of phase 2 not being constructed. We knew we would be building phase 2 rendering the [Department of Aging] language moot,” Snee said in an e-mail.
“Phase 3 called for 20 more assisted and 20 more nursing units at the [continuing care retirement community]. Remember that the residents at the assisted and nursing units must come from the Phase 1 independent living units, i.e. those initial residents in nursing and assisted cannot come from the streets, they must come from our [independent living units] and transition to the nursing and assisted units. As such, we phased the assisted and nursing units to approximate the demand for those units from the expected aging of our [independent living unit] residents and their assisted and nursing needs,” Snee continued.
In the document, which was approved in August 2010, the Department of Aging also required Presbyterian Home to include a disclosure statement informing prospective patients about the lack of facilities within just a few years of opening:
“That information must inform potential residents that they may need to go to another facility for assisted living or nursing care, if such care is needed, after 2015.”
Bennett doubts this was ever done.
“My sense is maybe that wasn’t being verbally communicated. Maybe it was in literature somewhere,” Bennett said.
Snee says it wasn’t yet needed.
“The Disclosure Statement would be released after [Presbyterian Home of Maryland] pre-sells 70 percent of the units, resulting in the Department’s issuance of the Final Certificate of Registration followed by our Disclosure Statement. Obviously the project never got that far along,” Snee wrote.
There’s also the matter of the property tax relief Presbyterian Home sought from Aberdeen and Harford County, which the Department of Aging addressed as such:
“The Feasibility Study assumes Presbyterian Home of Maryland, Inc. will be able to secure adequate property tax relief from the City of Aberdeen and Harford County. It also recognizes that without that relief the project is not financially feasible.”
The way the document is worded makes it seem as if the Department of Aging was mandating the tax exemption, but Bennett says that’s only because Presbyterian Home submitted its initial application under the premise that such exemptions would be granted.
What the Department of Aging was really requiring, Bennett said, was that if Presbyterian Home couldn’t get the tax exemptions it initially planned for, it would need to reapply with a new plan.
“All along they were trying to lead us to believe the Department of Aging was requiring them to get the tax-free exemption. Well, that’s not really the case,” Bennett said. “The only way they could make that work financially was to get property tax exemptions from Harford County and the City of Aberdeen.”
Not stopping there, Bennett said the company “misportrays itself in another aspect too.”
Although it describes itself as a “faith-based, not-for-profit charitable organization serving adults of all faiths,” Presbyterian Home is not related to or a function of the Presbyterian Church.
“They have no connection to the Presbyterian Church. None,” said Bennett, who fielded questions from several city residents, including a few from the Presbyterian Church, who expressed concern that the project seemed linked to their church.
In a public statement released the same day James withdrew her tax exemption/hotel tax bill in mid-March, Shea, Executive Director of Presbyterian Home, said her company was already looking for a new home in Harford County.
“I understand Mayor [Wayne] Dougherty has welcomed them with open arms to Havre de Grace. OK, that’s fine,” Bennett said.
Bennett said an 80-acre site at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace has been rumored for months to be the destination of a retirement community, and the Aberdeen mayor surmised Presbyterian Home may move in that direction.
If so, Bennett said the local government and citizens of Havre de Grace shouldn’t be surprised by what Presbyterian Home requests of its next would-be home.
“I have a feeling they won’t be going away from their property tax relief [demands] wherever they go,” he added.