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Firearms center gains support

May 25, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - The U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed that 30 acres be set aside in a 327-acre tract near Harpers Ferry for a federal firearms facility and that the rest remain under the ownership of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

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After considering the letter and debating, the Jefferson County Commissioners voted 4-1 Thursday to lend their support to the project. Commissioner James G. Knode cast the dissenting vote.

The proposal is outlined in a letter to U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., from John Berry, assistant secretary of policy, management and budget for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In addition to keeping most of the land under the control of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Berry said he would recommend that the U.S. Park Service work cooperatively with the U.S. Customs Service to find a suitable site for the firearms facility.

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Byrd originally included in a Senate appropriations bill a provision that would have transferred the entire 327 acres to the Customs Service for use as a facility to train personnel to deal with terrorists and the drug war.

Berry's letter was in response to a request by Byrd to find a way to get the U.S. Park Service involved in the planning process for a firearms training center, Justin Johnson, an assistant in Berry's office, said.

Local conservation groups have expressed concern about how the firearms training facility would affect tourism at nearby Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and about possible noise from the facility.

To make sure any Park Service concerns are addressed, Byrd sought the U.S. Department of Interior's views on the facility, Johnson said Wednesday.

Berry could not be reached for comment. In his letter to Byrd, Berry said he wants the U.S. Park Service to work cooperatively with the Customs Service to select a site "so that all interests of the federal government may be protected."

Byrd must now decide whether to follow Berry's recommendation, Johnson said.

Johnson could not say how long it might take to reach an agreement.

"We're still a long way away. But I think this is the best solution to take care of everybody," Johnson said.

The issue of noise from a firearms training facility has not been studied, he said.

"I'm sure that will be looked into. That's probably the primary concern," Johnson said.

A staff member said a vote on the bill probably won't come for about two weeks, leaving time for the firearms center proposal to be reshaped.

Marsha Starkey, spokeswoman for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, said park officials probably would not be able to comment on Berry's proposal until next week.

In his letter, Berry said he supports a firearms training center and said it could provide "significant cooperative training opportunities" for law enforcement personnel within the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife.

Despite one commissioner's comment that the project is "off to a crazed start," the Jefferson County Commissioners agreed Thursday to send a letter to Byrd supporting his efforts to land the facility.

Although he voted to send the letter to Byrd, Commissioner James K. Ruland cautioned that was it too early for the commissioners to take a stand on the project because details are still being worked out at the federal level.

"I would say to you it's premature to utter anything," Ruland said.

Commissioner Dean Hockensmith felt otherwise.

"Bring it on," Hockensmith said.

Although plans for the training center have sparked criticism, some say it could be a boon to the area's economy. The facility could bring good-paying jobs and have positive spinoff effects for the county's economy, supporters say.

Local supporters attended the commissioners meeting Thursday morning to witness the commissioner's vote on the letter to Byrd.

Some supporters said concerns about the facility should not have been raised. They said Byrd would not bring in a facility that would hurt the area.

Cesarina Wysong of Charles Town, W.Va., said she feared a lack of support for the center could make Byrd reluctant to steer other projects toward Jefferson County.

"He's going to get fed up with the county and then we won't get anything anymore," she said.

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