Lawmakers criticized over PenMar plan

March 11, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

Annapolis - Washington County lawmakers came under fire Wednesday at a hearing on their proposed overhaul of the agency redeveloping the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base.

Loud criticism by opponents of the PenMar Development Corp. bill grabbed the attention of some members of the House Economic Matters Committee, who said after the hearing they have doubts about approving the bill.

Meanwhile, local lawmakers said they still are working on appeasing critics by altering their proposal to replace the board and increase oversight.


Using words such as "discriminatory" and "punitive," representatives of the current PenMar board and the Cascade community warned that a board overhaul could disrupt negotiations with economic development prospects.

They repeated earlier accusations that local lawmakers are acting on the say-so of disgruntled former board members.

"It is not about redevelopment. It's about getting even with people who are currently on the PenMar board," said Karl Weissenbach, director of the Cascade Committee, a local community watchdog group.

Under the practice of "local courtesy," the Maryland General Assembly routinely approves legislation that only affects one county as long as that county's lawmakers are in support.

The Washington County Delegation voted unanimously last month to initiate the PenMar overhaul.

But some members of the committee said after Wednesday's hearing that local courtesy might not apply in this case.

"If I had to vote on it right now, I'd vote it down," said Del. John F. Wood Jr., D-Calvert/Charles/St. Mary's.

Del. Brian Moe, D-Anne Arundel/Prince George's, said he's looking at it differently than most local bills since it could set precedent for other state-created base closing agencies.

"The opponents to the bill had some very valid arguments," he said.

Committee Vice Chairwoman Ann Marie Doory, D-Baltimore City, said the committee will try to pass something acceptable to all sides.

"I think we'll try to be fair and work with the (Washington County) Delegation. We'd certainly be inclined to find a way to make everybody happy," she said.

Shank defends bill

Delegation Chairman Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, testified in favor of the bill. He described PenMar as a quasi-public agency with "tremendous power and very little oversight."

Paula Lampton, who resigned last year from the PenMar board, testified that "personal agendas" got in the way of the goal of creating jobs at the former base, which closed in 1998.

Some board members wanted to open the base to recreational uses.

"Unfortunately, things became a little bit messy," she said. "The mission got fuzzy and it got faded."

James Rzepkowski, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, testified that the agency would welcome greater oversight of the Fort Ritchie redevelopment process.

He did not take a position on the board structure, which he said should be left to local officials.

Current PenMar board members testified that the legislation is not needed because the board is functioning well.

The current PenMar board has re-established fractured relationships with the community and the Army, PenMar Chairman Ronald Sulchek said.

Additional oversight could be accomplished with changes to the board's bylaws, he said.

PenMar Executive Director Richard Rook said the board is negotiating with a master developer and has recruited a biotech research and development group to lease space on the base.

Cascade area residents stood solidly behind the current board, which they said has been more responsive to the community's needs than the previous board.

"This is a quality-of-life issue for the people of Cascade and the prospects are at risk if you back this legislation," said Robin Biser of Cascade.

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