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PenMar board agrees to Fort Ritchie sale

June 30, 2004|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

In an unadvertised special meeting, the PenMar Development Corporation's board of directors on Tuesday agreed to sell the 636-acre former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base to a Columbia, Md., developer once the Army turns over the land to PenMar.

The action comes after seven years of unsuccessful attempts by PenMar to redevelop the base in Cascade.

The vote at the 7:30 a.m. meeting at the base drew criticism from local residents, who said they believed the unadvertised meeting was illegal. They also said PenMar has kept residents in the dark about the buyer's plans for the base.

PenMar Executive Director Rich Rook said the vote allows the board's negotiating committee to complete a sale contract with Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT), which then will be signed by PenMar's board chairman, making the sale official.

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The final contract will not need approval of the PenMar board unless substantial changes are made to the proposed sale agreement, Rook said. He declined to discuss the terms of the contract.

The board reviewed the proposed sale agreement at the special meeting in closed session before voting 8-1 in open session to complete the contract.

Board Chairman Ron Sulchek was the only member to vote against the action. Board member William J. Wivell, who also is Washington County Commissioners vice president, abstained from the vote.

PenMar was created in 1997 to redevelop the former base, which the Army shut down in 1998.

Since then, PenMar has been able to keep one major commercial tenant, the International Masonry Institute. Much of the base is vacant.

Wivell said the sale of the property might take one or two years, depending on when the Army is able to transfer the land to PenMar.

The land transfer is on hold because of a court injunction issued in February 2003. A U.S. Court of Appeals judge found that PenMar violated legal requirements because an advertisement announcing the property's availability was faulty.

Until the injunction is lifted, PenMar would lease the base to COPT and then sell it to the company after the Army conveys the property.

COPT's interest in the base became public in May, after its executive vice president confirmed it had been in talks with PenMar. Before that, PenMar negotiated for more than a year with Lerner Enterprises Inc. of North Bethesda, Md., about becoming the base's main developer.

PenMar also received and rejected a proposal from Strategic Alliance Group Inc. of Baltimore to redevelop Fort Ritchie.

Sulchek said he voted against authorizing the sale to COPT because he thought hiring a master developer would bring more economic development opportunities to the base. He said that with a master developer, PenMar would have had a say in what goes on at the base and would have been able to give land to businesses as an incentive to build there.

Wivell said he abstained from the vote because he had several questions about the details of the proposed agreement. He said he could not discuss details of the proposal. He also said he wanted an independent company to appraise the land.

Sulchek said the property has not been appraised.

Cascade Committee member Robin Biser questioned whether a PenMar sale of the land to COPT would be legal. She said PenMar was charged with redeveloping the base for economic development, not selling it to another company.

Cascade Committee Director Karl Weissenbach said Tuesday's meeting should have been advertised.

Wivell, who agreed with Weissenbach, said the meeting should have been advertised because PenMar is subject to Maryland's Open Meetings Act.

Rook said he took responsibility for the meeting not being advertised.

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