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New PenMar plans appear to ignore Cascade residents

May 23, 2004|by Karl Weissenbach

There are disturbing signals that some PenMar Development Corporation officials might be moving in directions that could undermine efforts to ensure a balanced approach to redeveloping Fort Ritchie that incorporates economic, residential and recreational components.

In 1997, a remarkable document entitled "Comprehensive Redevelopment Plan for Fort Ritchie" was approved by the federal government as the authoritative document that would serve as the blueprint for long-term redevelopment of Fort Ritchie. The overall objective of this plan was to strike a balance between economic, residential, recreational, environmental and historic preservation concerns that would address the requirement to create tax revenue for the county, ensure Fort Ritchie would not be a "liability" for Washington County and "re-create" the 600 civilian jobs that were lost due to closing of the base that occurred one year later in 1998. The plan was prepared by Sasaki Associates at a cost to the federal taxpayers of $400,000.

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Despite being dated, the Comprehensive Redevelopment Plan is still relevant in that it comports to the agreed- upon redevelopment goals of a diversified community. It was approved by the federal government following a series of focus group sessions, community meetings and other methods that were used to determine what should happen at Fort Ritchie. Perhaps more community input should have been solicited, and some of the plan's proposals may need refining, but that does not negate its usefulness as a blueprint for redeveloping Fort Ritchie.

The plan devotes considerable print to economic and residential redevelopment, and provides much-needed commentary on community access to existing and future Fort Ritchie assets. For instance, it identifies potential "candidates" for building donations to the community such as the gymnasium and theater and calls for the parade fields to serve as the central lawn, which reflected the "community's" desire to create and preserve open space for generations to come. The parade field is designated for historic preservation, thereby precluding commercial and residential redevelopment on that part of the base.

Now it appears the 1997 comprehensive plan is in danger of being discarded as a relic of the past. Those pursuing a single-end user are whispering that the plan's various reuse options are unworkable. They are espousing a quick "fix" that will create 1,000 jobs, something we've heard over and over during the past seven years.

What these proponents of the quick fix redevelopment haven't told the public is that it could preclude all community access to Fort Ritchie assets. That would not only contravene the 1997 plan, but also BRAC (Base Realignment And Closure Act) community guidelines.

While we would like to see 1,000 jobs for Cascade-area residents, PMDC board is obligated to seek community input before someone makes promises that are not necessarily verifiable or in the best interest of the community.

In light of what appears to be taking place at Fort Ritchie, a number of questions need to be answered before PMDC commits to a quick "fix."

These questions include: Is PMDC putting all its eggs in one basket without first having reviewed other redevelopment proposals? Why doesn't PMDC seek proposals from other redevelopers so as to review which redevelopment plan comports more closely with the 1997 Plan?

Are interested developers demonstrating that they can effectively create jobs while simultaneously providing a balanced redevelopment approach that includes residential and recreational components that will ensure long-term community access? Has the PMDC board given serious consideration of the Bainbridge model that Sen. Don Munson proposed during the recent debate about the PMDC board in Annapolis?

Will PMDC require potential developers to submit proposals that comport with the 1997 plan, or has PMDC decided to abandon the plan? If so, what is the new plan and where did it come from?

For the community, we need to ask these questions of ourselves: Does the Cascade-area community want to lose its local elementary school if the focus of Fort Ritchie redevelopment is primary creating business parks? Without sufficient residential redevelopment at Fort Ritchie, Cascade Elementary can't survive. Do we want mixed-use redevelopment, as outlined in the plan, that also will ensure a semblance of rural mountain charm, or do we just want to be part of the urban sprawl that is slowly enveloping the area? You only need to look at Waynesboro where a Wal-Mart and Lowe's are about to be constructed and over 1,000 residential building permits have been recently issued.

At its February 2004 strategic planning session, the PMDC board voted to adhere to the 1997 Comprehensive Plan. For some strange reason, there is now an attempt by some to discredit the plan to achieve some other agenda.

Not so fast.

If the PMDC board wants to change course in midstream, then the board should notify federal authorities that it will not comply with the plan due to a change in vision. The federal government should then force PMDC to create a new comprehensive redevelopment plan with the requisite community input. PMDC must understand that the 1997 plan is a covenant with the people of Washington County to create a plan that will meet the needs of future generations.

According to BRAC guidelines, community input is a required component of comprehensive redevelopment plans and changes thereto.

Karl Weissenbach is director of the Cascade Committee.

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