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Amount of available land in dispute at Fort Ritchie

December 28, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

The U.S. Army and the organization charged with redeveloping the Fort Ritchie property disagree on how much land can be developed, but the chief of the Army's Base Realignment and Closure Office says the Army wants to quickly resolve that and related issues.

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Col. Steve Shambach said that Mahlon Apgar, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, has ordered his staff to examine complications to redevelopment plans and to have a report ready within 30 days.

"The intent is to resolve this one way or the other," Shambach said. "Let's quit putzing around on this thing."

The report will include, in part, whether the amount of land that can be developed is between 200 and 250 acres as the Army says, or 15 acres as PenMar Development Corp. Executive Director James LaFleur says.

Shambach in a letter to the editor sent to The Herald-Mail newspapers Tuesday responded to a Dec. 19 story in which LaFleur was quoted as saying a Dec. 14 meeting between PenMar and the Army failed to resolve an impasse.

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The letter marks the first time a high-level Army official has spoken publicly on recent disagreements between the Army and PenMar.

PenMar was created by the Maryland General Assembly to redevelop the land for business use to replace the 2,000 jobs lost when the Army base in northeastern Washington County closed in September 1998.

Spokesmen for the Army have in the past refused requests for comment.

LaFleur said restrictions that may be placed on the 638-acre property because of unexploded ordnance, including a prohibition against housing on some of the land, might make successful redevelopment impossible.

Shambach disputed LaFleur's recollection and interpretation of the meeting between PenMar and the Army.

"First, Mr. LaFleur implies the Army is intentionally frustrating PenMar's plan to redevelop Fort Ritchie and that is simply not true," Shambach wrote.

LaFleur said Tuesday he would not respond to Shambach's letter beyond reading aloud from a letter he sent on the issue to PenMar board members.

"I don't imply or insinuate. I have always tried to just state the facts," LaFleur said. "We at (PenMar) are very frustrated and disappointed with the process of getting title to the property to generate jobs."

LaFleur said that under present plans there will be 15 acres of developable land without environmental restrictions.

Shambach wrote that "the Army's opinion is that there are between 200 and 250 acres of developable land."

He wrote that "currently we are prepared to turn over at least 200 acres of land ... that is free and clear of environmental restrictions."

Apgar has told the Army to "resolve these discrepancies and return to him within 30 days with a means to resolve the discrepancies between the number of acres the Army and PenMar believe are developable," Shambach wrote.

LaFleur responded by quoting a Dec. 1 document from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to that document, of the property without restrictions 15 acres is "reusable," 101 acres are wetlands property, a historic parade field covers 30 acres, there are 49 acres of roads and a National Guard enclave is on 19 acres, LaFleur said.

The Army isn't necessarily saying that PenMar should build on wetlands or historic property, Shambach said. It is saying, however, that a closer look may determine that more than 15 acres are reusable, he said.

The next meeting between the Army and PenMar, tentatively scheduled for mid-January, will be at Fort Ritchie. The last one was at the Pentagon.

Redevelopment plans are on hold until the Army transfers the land to PenMar, a move that has 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.

LaFleur and PenMar board members have expressed frustration over the cleanup, which could take more than five years and cost the federal government $20 million to $30 million. Soil testing is scheduled to begin in the spring.

"Although this can be a lengthy process, to proceed otherwise would risk health and human safety, and that is unacceptable to the Army. We will continue working as quickly as possible with PenMar to remediate the land and turn it over to them as it becomes available for redevelopment," Shambach wrote.

The Army can't choose not to take these precautions just because there haven't been any problems previously, he said.

"The Army desires to convey all the property at Fort Ritchie to PenMar as quickly as possible. I know this can be accomplished if all parties work together toward reaching that goal," Shambach said.

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

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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