Weissenbach to watch fort from Kansas

June 13, 2005|by TARA REILLY

CASCADE - Though the PenMar Development Corp.'s loudest critic is heading to Kansas, the state agency created to redevelop the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base likely will continue to receive close scrutiny.

Karl Weissenbach, director of the Cascade Committee, said he intends to follow Fort Ritchie issues from Abilene, Kan., and fight to keep the base's historic grounds from being developed.

Weissenbach, 51, is resigning from the committee and the Victor Cullen Community Advisory Board effective June 24. He also is leaving as deacon at Germantown Church of God in Cascade.


He has taken a job as deputy director of The Dwight D. Eisenhower Library & Museum in Abilene, which is part of the National Archives Office of Presidential Libraries. He currently is the director of Nixon Presidential Materials, also part of the National Archives. He leaves for Kansas on July 5.

"Karl's just an e-mail away, and that's what PenMar needs to remember," Cascade resident Robin Biser said.

Biser also sits on the Cascade Committee's steering committee.

"Do not even think that their problems are over, because the war is still on, and we will still do battle," Biser said. "They don't need to sit on their hands and think that Karl's out of their hair."

PenMar was created by the state in 1997 to redevelop Fort Ritchie, which the Army shut down in 1998.

Weissenbach began playing an active role in the redevelopment efforts in January 2001, after he learned that the Washington County Board of Education was considering closing Cascade Elementary School.

The base and the school were linked, he said.

"I realized ... that the future of the school depended on what happens here at Fort Ritchie," said Weissenbach, who has two children.

When the Army closed the base, and as military families left the area, enrollment at the school fell from about 450 students to fewer than 200, a factor in the School Board's proposal to close it and send students to Smithsburg Elementary School.

After chairing the Save Our Community School committee and after the School Board eventually voted against closing the school, Weissenbach took the lead role with the Cascade Committee. The watchdog group evolved out of the Save Our Community School group.

Since 2001, he's kept a close eye on developments at the base, a responsibility he said comes with being part of a community.

He has pressed PenMar about making the base accessible to the public and keeping its records and meetings open to the public, among other issues. He often has challenged board members at meetings, through letters and on the Cascade Committee's Web site,

"I got involved because I really love the people up here," Weissenbach said. "I think they always realized that I put their interests first."

He said members of the community will continue to watch out for the best interests of the Cascade area.

"I think the community is in good shape," Weissenbach said. "I never felt it was a one-man show."

Most recently, Weissenbach and the Cascade Committee have criticized PenMar for agreeing to sell the base to Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) of Columbia, Md., without first seeking competitive bids or having the approximately 630-acre base appraised.

PenMar agreed in July to sell the base for $9 million. The price will drop to $5 million if COPT creates 1,400 jobs over nine years.

Weissenbach said he thinks the property is worth far more than the sale price, the proceeds from which could be used for a museum, a community center or an educational facility.

COPT plans to convert the base into a residential and commercial center.

Part of that plan calls for developing a historic part of the base, known as the parade grounds. The grounds are part of the Camp Ritchie Historic District, which was designated by the Maryland Historical Trust.

Weissenbach has called the parade grounds a national treasure that should be preserved.

"I think when it's all said and done, they'll write a book on how not to develop a military base," Weissenbach said.

PenMar Executive Director Rich Rook said Weissenbach was sometimes wrong in his understanding of PenMar matters and has tried to put a negative spin on positive Fort Ritchie developments.

"Good riddance, and I'm sure that I share that sentiment with a number of people from the Cascade area," Rook said.

"Personally, I'll be glad to see him go," he said. "It can't happen soon enough."

Washington County Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said that while Rook and Weissenbach didn't always agree, Rook's comments were uncalled for.

"He kept everybody honest," Wivell said of Weissenbach.

Wivell, treasurer of the PenMar board, said Weissenbach worked for the betterment of the area and will be missed.

"He seemed to carry the torch for many different projects for the Cascade community," Wivell said.

Biser had similar comments.

"No one has ever put the amount of time and energy into what he does," Biser said.

She said Weissenbach will continue to be involved with the Cascade community.

"Karl will be missed, but believe me, he is not going to ignore things," Biser said. "He's not going to forget about this town, and he's made that promise."

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