Army munitions, restrictions put on Fort Ritchie project in jeopardy

December 04, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

CASCADE - Plans to transform Fort Ritchie into a technology park could be abandoned due to complications caused by unexploded ordnance on the property.

Three Washington County Commissioners said last week they are ready to pull the plug on the state-created PenMar Development Corp. if problems and complications with the Army over the issue aren't resolved within six months.

"We will not accept that property with the conditions that have been put on it," Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said. Commissioner Paul L. Swartz and John L. Schnebly agreed.

Even after the Army cleans up unexploded ordnance - military munitions - on the 638-acre for Army base, there will be use restrictions on 90 percent of the land, including a prohibition against building homes on some areas of the property, PenMar Executive Director James LaFleur said.


It was hard enough marketing the site because of its location - in the mountains near Cascade - but the land-use restrictions make it even more difficult, he said.

There have been plans since 1995 to redevelop the base and accomplish PenMar's mission of restoring the 2,000 jobs lost by the fort's closure in September 1998, but they can't succeed in that goal under conditions being imposed by the Army and the federal government, LaFleur said.

LaFleur said that after a Dec. 14 meeting with the assistant of the Army he'll have a better sense of whether to remain optimistic about PenMar or conclude it won't work.

"I think we'll know if we can do the redevelopment plan or not" by January, La Fleur said.

About $2.2 million in federal money has been spent on the redevelopment effort since 1996, not including money the Army has spent on maintenance and security.

"We would like them to work with us on this and they are not being cooperative," LaFleur said.

The Army will not respond to comments by PenMar or county officials, Base Transition Coordinator Bill Spigler said Thursday.

The Army is going to clean up the base regardless of what the county and PenMar do, he said.

LaFleur told the County Commissioners Tuesday it may take more than five years and cost the federal government $20 million to $30 million to clean up the unexploded ordnance.

That work is on hold until the Army transfers the land to PenMar. The transfer has been delayed by environmental cleanup negotiations related to unexploded mortar shells and hand grenades which may be on about half of the property.

Despite the presence of the ordnance, people have been living and building on the land for more than 50 years without incident, county officials say.

William J. Reuter, a PenMar Development Corp. board members and chairman of Farmers and Merchants Bank & Trust Co., told the County Commissioners the odds of success for the project are "dubious at best."

As a lender, he said, "I would not lend a penny" to any company wanting to do business on PenMar because of Army land-use restrictions.

LaFleur said other banks and developers would probably reach the same conclusion.

PenMar's sole tenant is the International Masonry Institute, which wants to acquire 26 acres from PenMar to build a $35 million building complex which will ultimately have 200 employees. But they can't do that until PenMar gets title to the land.

"We are obviously concerned. We have been watching it very closely," said Joan Calambokidis, president of the group. "We do share their frustration."

As long as PenMar proceeds, so will the institute, she said. They have enjoyed working with Cascade merchants and have even hired some local residents, she said.

If PenMar decides to pull the plug, though, the institute will consider building somewhere else in the county, she said.

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