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Views differ on Ritchie land sale

July 29, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

CASCADE - As the final details of the sale agreement for the 600 or so acres of land in Cascade that held the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base were released on Wednesday, views on the sale continue to differ.

The disputes revolve around the 26-page sale agreement signed Monday. The agreement governs the price of the property, when the money will be transferred and what the two parties must do before the sale takes place.

Supporters of the $5 million to $9 million agreement say the final language of the yet-to-be completed land transfer is the best possible deal for the government-created company handling the sale and taxpayers in Washington County.

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Those opposed to the final draft say it does not go far enough to guarantee true economic development.

Knowing that the fort would be closing soon, Maryland legislators in 1997 created PenMar Development Corp. to move the fort's land into private hands as soon as possible while "maximizing new economic opportunities for the citizens of the State," according to the governing language for PenMar.

While PenMar is in charge of the former base, the land is still owned by the Army.

"I am cautiously optimistic about this latest deal," Del. Christopher B. Shank said Wednesday. "I think it represents a good step forward for Washington County and is consistent with the original mission of PenMar."

That original mission, while not specifically stated in the law, includes the creation of jobs while not exposing the county to financial liability, said Shank, R-Washington. While there are several steps that must take place before the sale is executed, amounting to months or years, Shank said the agreement appears to address those issues.

"It's the best opportunity that we've had in a long while," Shank said.

Corporate Office Properties Trust, the contract purchaser, is well established in developing national security-related properties, and "I don't remember any other developer willing to come up with $7 million of their own money," which COPT said it would spend at the minimum on upgrades to the property, Shank said.

Washington County Commissioner Doris J. Nipps said she also believes PenMar did well with the agreement.

The jobs promised in the agreement - some 1,400 over nine years - will "make a big difference," Nipps said.

The final agreement passed Monday with an 8-2 vote from the PenMar board, which PenMar Executive Director Rich Rook said was "a clear statement by the board of directors that this is the right thing to do."

Ron Sulchek, a local accountant who also sits on the PenMar Development board, cast one of the opposing votes against signing the sale agreement.

Sulchek said Wednesday that the agreement was the unfortunate result of confusion among the board members who rushed into a bad deal.

He said COPT officials told board members they expected to be able to bring 500 to 1,000 jobs "and there was an immediate need" for the land. Sulchek said board members took that to mean the jobs would be available within six months to a year of COPT taking over the site.

The agreement allows up to nine years to fill the job requirement. If COPT does not fulfill that requirement, it would have to pay an additional $4 million, bringing the total sale price to $9 million.

Sulchek said COPT appears to have the financial resources to pay its way out of that part of the agreement, especially if the sale price is much lower than the actual value of the land, which has yet to be determined.

"If we're wrong, and they don't bring these jobs, there's nothing that I see in this document that mandates that any job be created," Sulchek said. "I hope I'm wrong."

Karl Weissenbach, a Cascade resident who claims to represent more than 200 residents through a local civic organization, the Cascade Committee, said another problem is there appears to be no way to force COPT to keep its promises for development.

He said it appears that once COPT pays the $7.5 million it agreed to pay, it may not have to use the property commercially, and instead could use it for residential development or be able to sell the land outright.

"This is a colossal giveaway," Weissenbach said.

However, he said he liked the ideas set forth in the agreement about a mix of commercial and residential uses for the site.

One thing Weissenbach said he hoped for - a series of community meetings with the PenMar board, COPT and the county commissioners about development plans - appears to be in the works. Rook said one community meeting has been set for Aug. 11.

In the face of continued questioning, Rook and others said the board - in its different variations over the years after legal challenges and internal disputes - did a good job overall in bringing negotiations to this point.

"Everybody hopes for a lightning strike," Rook said. But the question remains, "How long do you have to stand in the rain before it happens?"

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