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Why PenMar took steps it did in Fort Ritchie sale

November 19, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

As a Columbia, Md. developer unveils a $255 million plan to redevelop the old Fort Ritchie Army base, there are still some who believe that PenMar Development Corp., the agency which will oversee the project, didn't get the best deal for the property.

Corporate Offices Properties Trust will pay $9 million for the base, a sale price that will fall to the $5 million if 1,400 jobs are created over several years.

Is that a good deal for the county? Should the property have been appraised, versus the "fairness opinion" of the deal PenMar obtained?

To discuss these and other questions, I spoke to George Griffin, current chair of PenMar's board.

No appraisal was done, Griffin said, because "most of us on the board couldn't figure out how it could be appraised."

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Griffin said "Piecemeal, you could see it (an appraisal.) Or if you were selling buildings."

But, Griffin said, "Here we are, out in the country, not along a major highway or an airport. We needed for somebody to put in context of where it is and what is it worth to anybody."

According to Griffin, the questions the PenMar board was trying gets answers to were: "Are we in the ballpark here? Are we being fair or are we being foolish?"

Appraising the entire base would not be easy. According to Tim O'Rourke, the county's chief of assessments, although the land was valued at $2.9 million in September 2003, the building haven't been done because there are 220 of them.

The Army wasn't paying taxes, so why do the work? It will be done after COPT takes possession, O'Rourke said.

The other issue which concerns some local folks is access to the base. In its presentation to the Washington County Commissioners this week, COPT said it would restrict access to 57.3 acres in the middle of the base to those working in U.S. government offices and/or defense contractors.

Griffin said this is a change from COPT's original thinking, which was to restrict access to entire base. When PenMar's board told COPT that wouldn't fly with the community, Griffin said they modified the proposal.

Creating such a center was one of the top items on a wish list generated by a survey done by the One Mountain Foundation, a Cascade-area citizens' group.

The question at this point is: Who will agree to build it and how will it be sustained over time?

Dwight Taylor, a COPT representative, on Tuesday told the Washington County Commissioners that his company does not want to run the facility.

Though that question hasn't been answered, Griffin said there's no hurry about finding an answer because PenMar and COPT haven't closed on the property yet.

And, he said, under the law, PenMar will be around for seven years to monitor what happens and decide what to do with the money from the sale, which must be used on the site.

"We still have a lot of things to sort out, like who's going to pay for it. We've could go halfsies. There are lots of ways to look at this thing," he said.

I asked Griffin how he could convince those in the community who still don't trust the PenMar board that nothing sinister is going on.

"Watch what we do and not just what we say. What we have done is to put in writing a sale contract and we're doing this without having the property in our hands," he said.

Other challenges remain. A court injunction hasn't been lifted yet, although Griffin hope it soon will be. The telephone communication system at the base needs a major update and in terms of cell-phone usage, it's a "blank area," he said.

Would asking COPT to build and maintain community center be a deal-breaker? Maybe, maybe not. From a developer's point of view, it makes sense to me to have something on the site that those who work there could use as well as citizens.

From a liability standpoint, I can see that COPT might not want to own the center. A little horseplay by the pool, somebody slips and cracks their head and it's lawsuit time.

Here's a compromise: Have COPT build it, then let PenMar live on to oversee the use of sale proceeds to run the center.

I disagree with Griffin on one point, however. Working out that arrangement sooner rather than later would be wise.

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