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History drilled

Parade grounds at Fort Ritchie should be saved

Parade grounds at Fort Ritchie should be saved

December 05, 2004|by Karl Weissenbach

On Dec. 18, 1997, a historic signing ceremony took place at Fort Ritchie. On that day the Department of the Army, Maryland's state historic preservation officer, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the PenMar Development Corporation (PMDC) reached a formal agreement that would protect the core Fort Ritchie historic district from future development.

Before the above mentioned signed off on the agreement, there were a number of hearings to gauge the public's support for historical preservation measures at Fort Ritchie.

The Programmatic Agreement (see www.CascadeCommittee.org) protects key historic buildings and the parade fields within the "Camp Ritchie Historic District" from demolition and development. It also makes an unambiguous statement that the historic district is a national treasure that deserves special protection.

There can be no doubt that Fort Ritchie's core historic district is one of the jewels in Washington County's rich cultural heritage. In addition, the parade fields serve as a proud memorial to the men and women who have served their country.

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According to Department of the Army documents, by 1944, all Counter Intelligence Corps personnel were trained at Camp Ritchie and about 20,000 intelligence specialists were trained at Fort Ritchie. Recently, a Canadian/German documentary film focused on a group of German Jewish refugees who trained at Camp Ritchie and served in the European theater.

The Programmatic Agreement is not the only document that clearly addresses long-term historical preservation and protection of the Camp Ritchie Historic District. The Fort Ritchie Comprehensive Development Plan (the existing community plan) cites the parade fields as the "central lawn," or open space, within the context of a redeveloped Fort Ritchie. The community's plan specifically states, "It is intended that this open space be permanently protected as critical to the success of the development."

Now the PMDC is turning its back on the Programmatic Agreement, which had earned its concurrence in 1997. Apparently the PMDC board of directors has no appreciation of the cultural heritage or importance of keeping intact accessible open space at Fort Ritchie.

On Nov. 8, the PMDC board inexplicably approved Corporate Office Property Trust's (COPT) development plan that proposes commercial development of the federally protected historic parade fields, including the construction of two office buildings and parking lots for both.

Ironically, on Nov. 19, the attorney representing PMDC reminded a judge in a Washington, D.C., federal courtroom that PMDC had sued Role Models America over the installation of flagpoles at the school's Fort Ritchie administrative building because the poles would violate the integrity of the fort's historic district.

According to a court document, PMDC alleged, "After defendant failed to remove the unapproved flagpoles, PMDC contacted the Maryland Historical Trust, Maryland's State Historic Preservation Office, which issued a letter stating that defendant's installation of the flagpoles 'constitutes an adverse effect on the historic district and is an inappropriate treatment for (Fort Ritchie) for several reasons.'"

We are puzzled as to how PMDC can argue with a straight face in court that RMA's construction of two flagpoles was detrimental to the integrity of the historic district, but yet give PMDC's stamp of approval to COPT's construction of two office buildings right on the historic parade fields in the middle of the same historic district.

We believe PMDC must equally advise all of its tenants and prospective purchasers that their proposed development and construction plans must not violate the intent and integrity of the Programmatic Agreement, must not include development that would have adverse effects on the historic district or otherwise be an inappropriate treatment for Fort Ritchie, and must not, under any circumstances, include development on the historic parade fields.

We oppose all permanent construction on the parade fields, including buildings, building additions, parking lots, roads, fencing, tennis courts and basketball courts. Further, we believe that the argument of "limited" development of the parade fields is necessary for job creation is not supported by available data. The recently approved COPT development plan contains a high-density level of residential and commercial development. The COPT plan adds additional developable land by significantly reducing the amount of open space that currently exists at Fort Ritchie.

It's been asserted that COPT's proposal to construct two office buildings on the parade fields is a "one time" building request. Approval of this request would set a terrible precedent and let the development genie out of the bottle right on the parade fields in the middle of the historic district, and it would be impossible to retrieve it.

That would clearly jeopardize the future of the Camp Ritchie Historic District. That is why we insist on Maryland Historic Trust and others to resist any political pressure to permit even "limited" development of the parade fields.

While we welcome responsible development - and there is plenty of developable land at Fort Ritchie - bulldozing our cultural heritage so that two out of 16 office buildings can be built is wrong and should be actively resisted by all.

Do we really want to compromise the integrity of the historic agreement just for two suburban office buildings? Those wishing to help preserve the historic parade fields from any development can contact us at cascadeone2003@yahoo.com or at P.O. Box 241, Cascade, MD 21719.




Karl Weissenbach is director of the Cascade Committee.

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