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Unexploded weapons slow PenMar efforts

May 04, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

FORT RITCHIE - Unexploded mortar shells and hand grenades, remnants of this former military base's previous use, are slowing down efforts to transform the property into a technology and training center.

About 150 people showed up at a meeting here Tuesday night to hear from members of the PenMar Development Corp., which was created to oversee the redevelopment of Fort Ritchie.

PenMar officials said they have talked with several companies interested in locating in what would be called Lakeside Corporate Center. But PenMar cannot sell them land until the title of the 638-acre property is transferred from the military.

The base, which closed last September, is still owned by the U.S. Army. One of the major factors delaying the transfer is weaponry that could be buried on about half the property.

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"It's only after clearance is given that redevelopment can begin," said James A. LaFleur, executive director of PenMar. "We cannot lease property in that area."

Before turning over the property, Army officials say they need to find and remove the unexploded weapons. These include mortars and hand grenades left over from the last seven decades. Soldiers from the National Guard, and later the Army, used the base to train.

Under a plan proposed by the Army, officials would search areas near buildings with metal detectors and then dig up anything that is within 4 feet of the surface. The wooded hills in the back of the base would be swept of material on the surface.

If the plan is adopted - a decision will not be made until July - the Army said work will begin in the spring of 2000 and would last until 2001.

LaFleur said PenMar officials became aware of the issue after they had submitted their economic development application.

"We quickly told them at that time that that didn't meet our objectives," he said.

PenMar, which has been criticized by some nearby Cascade residents for moving too slowly, wants the ability to sell lots to companies. The International Masonry Institute, one of two tenants now on the former base, would like to break ground on a new $40 million facility.

LaFleur said PenMar would like the Army to hand over control of the property and let the redevelopment authority oversee the clearing. That would allow PenMar to prioritize the cleanup if a prospect is interested in a particular piece of property.

"We're not convinced the Army will be that flexible if they set the timetable," he said.

But George Drastal, a member of the citizens Restoration Advisory Board, said he was concerned about rushing the cleanup job. One accident would have devastating consequences on the redevelopment efforts, he said.

"It's not good publicity if highly paid employees are getting blown up," he said.

Bill Hofmann, the Base Realignment and Closure environmental coordinator, said in an interview that the Army is revisiting the issue.

"It's never been done, but that doesn't mean it can't be done," he said.

Failing that, LaFleur said PenMar would like the Army to transfer just the part of the base that does not have unexploded weapons.

Hofmann said the Army is considering that request also. But he added that Army officials are concerned about "cherry-picking" only the clean sections.

PenMar Chairman William J. Reuter said quick action is needed to follow up on contacts the authority has already made with interested businesses.

"We're very close to losing a couple of important companies," he said.

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