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PenMar shake-up strongly opposed

February 22, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Strong opposition is threatening to sink the Washington County Delegation's proposed overhaul of the PenMar Development Corp.

PenMar board members are urging residents to fight the legislation, which they said could hamper efforts to redevelop the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base.

Delegation Chairman Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he's determined to move forward with the shake-up, which he and other local lawmakers deem critical to the future of the Cascade base that closed in 1998.

Most of the time, the Maryland General Assembly grants what is known as "local courtesy" to legislation that affects only one part of the state.

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But that practice has been abandoned in the past when state lawmakers, who are loathe to get in the middle of local disputes, are faced with local opposition.

A recent example was last year's proposal to grant Hagerstown Community College professors collective bargaining rights.

Although the legislation enjoyed the support of a majority of local lawmakers, it was killed by the House Appropriations Committee because the Washington County Commissioners chose to remain neutral.

So far, the commissioners have not weighed in on the PenMar proposal, which would dissolve the 15-member board and create a nine-member board with some residency restrictions and more oversight by state and county officials.

PenMar is not on the commissioners' meeting agenda Tuesday.

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said he would have second thoughts about the legislation if the commissioners come out in opposition.

But Shank and others said PenMar was created by the state and its fate should be in the state's hands.

"There's no circumstances under which that bill's going to be withdrawn," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who cross-filed the bill in the Senate. "PenMar's needed fixing and we need to move forward."

Even before the delegation voted unanimously Feb. 12 to submit the legislation, there was resistance from the PenMar board, Cascade residents and several commissioners.

To quell critics, local lawmakers relaxed a county residency requirement for the board. Shank, who largely brokered the compromise, said he is not personally willing to make further concessions.

PenMar board Chairman Ronald Sulchek said despite the changes, the proposal still creates too much upheaval.

Uncertainty about who among the 10 current members will be appointed to the new board will make it difficult to continue negotiations with economic development prospects, he said.

"How are we going to be good negotiators when there's this cloud hanging over us? It makes our job much more difficult," Sulchek said.

Despite the legislation, the PenMar board voted unanimously last week to continue negotiations with master developer Lerner Enterprises. The decision came after a 61/2-hour strategic planning session at the Clarion Hotel and Convention Center in Hagerstown.

"I was very pleased that the attitude was not one of folding up our tents and going home. As volunteers, it would be easy to wash our hands of the whole mess and go back to our paying jobs," Sulchek said.

The board urged citizens to contact members of the House Economic Matters Committee, who will be reviewing the legislation. A public hearing date has not yet been set.

Sulchek did not deny that the board is considering hiring a lobbyist to defeat the bill.

"We're certainly considering a lot of things," he said.

Under the proposed PenMar overhaul, Sulchek, a Hagerstown accountant who lives in Sabillasville, Md., still would be able to serve on the board, but would not be able to serve as chairman. The proposal calls for the chair and vice chair of PenMar to live in Washington County.

Commissioners, who have expressed the need for continuity on the board, could reappoint five of the current 10 board members, Shank said.

State lawmakers, who would make the remaining four appointments, have not said whom they would name to the board.

Some have suggested that local lawmakers were motivated to shake up the board by influential former board members with philosophical and personal differences.

But Shank said the legislation is about policy, not personalities.

Lawmakers simply are fulfilling their obligation to closely scrutinize the redevelopment, which has been beset by delays and lawsuits over the years, he said.

Washington County could be liable if PenMar's efforts fail, he said.

He compared the situation to the Washington County Sanitary District of the early 1990s, which accumulated a multimillion-dollar debt and had to be bailed out by the Washington County Commissioners.

"I'm not willing to let that occur on my watch," Shank said.

On the advice of Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch, Shank plans to propose an amendment to the legislation to clarify that the county and state cannot be held liable for debts incurred by PenMar.

Sulchek said lawmakers' fears about liability are unfounded.

PenMar has about $4 million in the bank, which largely has come from renting the townhouses that used to serve as military family housing.

Members of the Cascade Committee, a local residents group that has served as a watchdog over Fort Ritchie's redevelopment, said they oppose the emergency nature of the legislation.

As an emergency bill, the legislation would go into effect immediately upon signature by Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

Although Cascade residents have had problems in the past with the PenMar board's secrecy, they have said they are satisfied that the current board has the best interests of the community in mind.

They question why state lawmakers are getting involved now.

Shank said the law, which requires the County Commissioners' approval of any master developer, should go into effect before the board comes to an agreement with Lerner.

"The state and county need to have a more active role in decisions made at PenMar. Hopefully, the County Commissioners agree with that," Shank said.

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