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PenMar chances look bleak

November 30, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

The likelihood of successfully transforming Fort Ritchie into a technology park is "dubious at best" because of unexploded ammunition possibly buried there, a redevelopment board member said Tuesday.

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That bleak assessment came from William J. Reuter, a PenMar Development Corp. board member and chairman of Farmers and Merchants Bank & Trust Co.

As a lender, he said, "I would not lend a penny" to any company wanting to do business at PenMar because of Army land-use restrictions, which may prevent new residential development.

PenMar is a quasi-public organization created by the Maryland General Assembly in May 1997 to redevelop the land and restore the 2,000 jobs lost by the closure of Fort Ritchie in September 1998.

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Reuter's comments came after James A. LaFleur, PenMar's executive director, said it may take more than five years and cost the federal government $20 million to $30 million to clean up unexploded ordnance on the former army base.

Even after the cleanup, land-use restrictions would remain on 90 percent of the property when it is transferred from the Army to PenMar, LaFleur told the Washington County Commissioners during their meeting Tuesday.

"I'm really disappointed," Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said after the meeting. "It's a no-win situation."

The plan was always for PenMar to phase itself out after it created the 2,000 jobs but now it's possible it may be dissolved even without those jobs, Snook said.

LaFleur was somewhat more optimistic. He hopes to get some issues between PenMar and the Army resolved in the next month.

"I'm far from given up on this," he said.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md, have sent a joint letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen requesting a meeting between the Army, the Environmental Protection Agency and PenMar around mid-December, LaFleur said.

LaFleur said it is possible Fort Ritchie would have to be used in some way other than for redevelopment. He said he does not know what that "new direction" would be.

Board member Wayne Alter Jr. said spending taxpayer money to remove the weapons makes little sense considering that thousands of people have lived and worked on base land without any problems.

"It is foolish to spend so much money for what is essentially a nonissue," Alter said.

The International Masonry Institute, which leases buildings there, says it is ready to build a $40 million permanent home at Fort Ritchie but first that land must be transferred from the Army to PenMar.

Everything is on hold until the Army transfers the 638 acres to PenMar, a move that's been delayed by environmental cleanup negotiations.

Unexploded mortar shells and hand grenades, remnants of the Maryland National Guard's pre-1926 use, might be buried on half the property.

The Army has refused to transfer just part of the property to PenMar until a weapons cleanup program is finalized.

Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger said the county should consider meeting with the International Masonry Institute to see if it would consider putting the building elsewhere in the county if PenMar plans don't work out. He wants to ensure the PenMar problems don't result in the company leaving the county, he said.

About $2.2 million has been spent on the redevelopment effort since 1996. That doesn't include money the Army has spent on maintenance and security.

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