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PenMar development meeting ends in deadlock

December 18, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

A meeting last week between the PenMar Development Corp. and the U.S. Army failed to end an impasse over plans and restrictions obstructing PenMar's goal of redeveloping Fort Ritchie for commercial and residential usage.

"We got nowhere," James A. LaFleur, executive director of PenMar, said Friday. "The only thing we agreed on is to meet again."

No date has been set to meet, he said.

The quasi-public organization was created by the Maryland General Assembly in May 1997 to replace the 2,000 jobs lost when the base in northeastern Washington County closed in September 1998.

LaFleur said he had hoped for help removing obstacles which may block PenMar from meeting that goal.

Under proposed federal plans for the base, only about 145 acres of the 638-acre base doesn't have restrictions on usage, LaFleur said. Of those 145 acres, only about 15 acres is developable, he said.

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Instead of offering solutions, the Army suggested PenMar consider building on a wetlands area and a parade route designated as a state historic district, LaFleur said. Neither is viable, he said.

Tuesday's meeting with the assistant to the director of the Army and others was requested by U.S. Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, both D-Md., in a joint letter.

Redevelopment plans are on hold until the Army transfers the 638 acres to PenMar, a deal that's been delayed by environmental cleanup negotiations. Unexploded mortar shells and hand grenades, remnants of the Maryland National Guard's pre-1926 use of the fort, might be buried on as much as half the property.

It may take more than five years and cost the federal government $20 million to $30 million to clean up the unexploded ordnance on the former army base, LaFleur said. That work could begin as early as this spring.

Army officials have refused comment on Fort Ritchie except to say they are going to do the clean-up regardless of what PenMar later does with the property.

During an interview Friday, LaFleur said he and PenMar board members are frustrated with the process.

"It is discouraging and disappointing," he said.

LaFleur said PenMar can't get the Army to list all the restrictions it will place on the property due to the unexploded ordnance.

However, two restrictions they know of would limit where they can build residential developments and where they can have water wells.

Those restrictions alone have sparked some PenMar board members to say that plans to redevelop the base won't work. There will be more test results, he said.

The Army wants to reserve the right to change the area where it believes there is unexploded ordnance, which could have further impact on PenMar plans.

PenMar has known all along there was unexploded ordnance, but in 1997 it appeared only about 100 acres were affected and would not interfere with its redevelopment plans, he said.

In December 1998, the Army told them the area of concern had tripled in size, to about 300 acres, he said.

"That is when we said, 'We have a problem'," LaFleur said.

They had to make changes, including moving the location where they planned to build 70 to 100 lots for sale as homes, LaFleur said.

More complications ensued a few months later when an ordnance clean-up plan proposed by the Army, which wouldn't have interfered much with PenMar plans, was opposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment, he said.

Earlier this month, three Washington County Commissioners said they are ready to pull the plug on PenMar's work if problems and complications with the Army over the issue aren't resolved within six months.

The International Masonry Institute, which already 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.

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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