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Delegation faces hurdles regarding PenMar legislation

March 07, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - With a hearing scheduled Wednesday, state lawmakers still were scrambling last week to find changes that might make an overhaul of the PenMar Development Corp. more palatable to opponents.

PenMar and its supporters continued lobbying against the legislation, which would supplant the board and more closely monitor its actions.

The state-created agency redeveloping the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base in Cascade has been under scrutiny because of past board infighting.

It also has faced legal troubles.

Most recently, PenMar was hit with a $304.5 million lawsuit by former tenant Role Models America, a military-style school for high school dropouts.

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The Army and the U.S. Department of Labor also are named as defendants in the suit, filed Jan. 28 in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia and made public last week.

On Feb. 12, the delegation voted unanimously to revamp the PenMar board through legislation.

Lawmakers are proposing to dissolve the current board, which has 10 members appointed by the Washington County Commissioners, and replace it with a new nine-member board.

Commissioners, who have expressed a wish for continuity on the board, immediately could reappoint five of the members.

State lawmakers would make the remaining four appointments.

In order to increase oversight, the commissioners would have to approve any master developer.

The board has been in talks with Lerner Enterprises about taking on that role and has said a board shake-up could jeopardize any deal.

Two weeks ago, local lawmakers said they were committed to moving forward with the plan, which already had been altered to relax a proposed residency requirement for board members.

They called it critical to the future of the base, which closed in 1998.

Since then, the lobbying pressure has intensified.

PenMar has been arguing that the bill would create too much upheaval and should be set aside for further study.

Last Monday, PenMar persuaded the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce to oppose the bill. Later the same day, the board decided to reconsider the vote and will meet Monday to discuss the issue.

Lawmakers took a political blow when the Washington County Commissioners refused to take a position on the bill.

PenMar Executive Director Richard Rook and Commissioner William J. Wivell, who would lose his PenMar board voting privileges if the legislation passes, came to Annapolis last week to lobby against the bill.

In light of the lobbying, Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, asked Rook to suggest changes that would make the legislation more acceptable.

McKee said he also has been in touch with Cascade residents to find out if any compromises can be reached.

While the legislation has been filed, it still is early enough in the legislative process for changes to be made easily, he said.

Rook said Friday that board members had not yet discussed what, if any, changes they will propose. A board meeting is scheduled for Monday.

Delegation Chairman Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, who largely authored the legislation after consulting with other local lawmakers, said he is willing to consider changes.

"It would be useful to know specifically what their concerns are," he said.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday in the House Economic Matters Committee.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, has cross-filed the bill. The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a March 23 hearing.

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.

But the legislature, whose 90-day session ends April 12, has made exceptions in the past when there has been local opposition.

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