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Fort eyed as possible county park

November 25, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

A National Park Service manager said Monday the agency is in talks with Washington County officials about converting part of the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base into a public park.

Under the National Park Service's Federal Lands to Parks Program, surplus federal land may be transferred to the Park Service for the purpose of creating parks and recreation areas, said Bill Huie, manager of the program.

Should that happen at the former base in Cascade, the National Park Service would convey the property to the state or to Washington County to create a park at no charge, Huie said.

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"It's a good chance to get free park land," Huie said. "There's nothing concrete yet. It's still in the talking stage."

Washington County would be responsible for maintaining the park, he said.

Huie said the former base has good features, such as a lake, open space and proximity to the Appalachian Trail, making it an ideal location for a park.

"It's very, very nice property there," said Huie, who visited the base in 1996.

PenMar Development Corp. Executive Director Richard Rook said the National Park Service could apply for the land through the Public Benefit Conveyance process until the deadline of Jan. 9 at 4 p.m.

The Public Benefit Conveyance process allows interested parties to apply for portions of the federal property. The purpose of the process is to make the public aware of the land's availability, Rook said.

PenMar Development Corp. was created by the state in 1997 to redevelop the base. The Army, which still owns the land, closed the base in 1998.

The Army is in the process of conveying the land to PenMar, which then would convey the property to interested groups or businesses if approved by PenMar, Rook said.

No groups have applied since the conveyance was advertised on Oct. 10, Rook said.

Rook said PenMar would be willing to work directly with the county if the County Commissioners are interested in creating a park at the former base.

The base contains about 600 acres.

Rook said PenMar would convey the land to the county at no charge without going through the Public Benefit Conveyance process.

"PenMar's position has been if the county wanted to create parks up here, we would be willing to convey (the land) to the county," Rook said.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said they were not aware of discussions with the National Park Service.

Washington County Attorney Richard Douglas did not return a phone call Monday.

"The commissioners have not discussed anything about that," Snook said.

"Everything's still pretty much up in the air at this point," Wivell said.

Wivell, who is a member of the PenMar Board of Directors, said if a park were created at the former base, he thinks it should be maintained by a business that locates there.

"I envision more of a corporate-type park," Wivell said.

Karl Weissenbach, chairman of the Cascade Committee, said he supports a park at the former base.

He said he thinks the Cascade community would form a "Friends of the Park" group to help maintain it.

"How much does it take to cut the bloody grass?" Weissenbach said. "The community is big enough where people would be more than happy with keeping the park clean."

Weissenbach said it might be possible that employees of Pen Mar County Park, which is near the former base, also could lend some assistance in maintaining the park.

"I don't see this as a burden for the county." Weissenbach said.

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