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At Fort Ritchie, it's time to move along

July 18, 2005

By Gary Muller

So now our community's future is held up while individuals with private agendas "go to war" to stop redevelopment of the former Fort Ritchie once again.

Not having been part of countless hours of behind-closed-doors meetings and not being privy to negotiations with various suitors, how are we supposed to form an opinion of a fair contract from long newspaper articles and various letters to the editor?

That is why a board of qualified individuals was selected and approved by the Washington County Commissioners to serve on the PenMar Development Corp. board. Anyone can apply to serve, and in recent years most appointed have been from surrounding communities.

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Last year, the Maryland legislature kept the current board as it is composed in place and reaffirmed its right and responsibility to do the redevelopment. But some feel they should be part of a publicly held negotiation for the former fort and that an existing contract can be renegotiated and altered in the press. But no contract with a publicly traded company can be handled like that.

The COPT offer was not the first offer PMDC received to buy either the whole base or a portion of it. But the board listened to those offers in closed session and negotiated and deliberated out of the public eye, as it should have. The contract with International Masonry Institute came out of such negotiations. The loss of IMI is directly linked to the long delay in gaining title to the land because of lawsuits and appeals by another suitor.

The argument that the COPT sale was made in secret with no other suitors is simply not true. There were presentations by other development firms before the COPT offer and all board members were aware of them.

Dissenting board members have had ample time to express their views and opinions to the balance of the board. Individuals with various opinions have had their say in open session, at public meetings, in the local papers and to the Washington County Commissioners, all before the contract signing took place.

But their points of view did not carry the day. If they felt that there was some improper action, they had the right to ask to have the action reviewed by the state attorney general.

But to send a letter to Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, release it to the press and then conduct a campaign calling the contract a "sweetheart deal" is creating an air of wrongdoing that simply does not exist.

Our community has suffered through one false start after another. Next year we will lose the jobs that IMI brought here and the hundreds more that could have come if those lawsuits and appeal after appeal had not held up the project.

And there could be no end in sight. If a resident of another state buys property in Cascade tomorrow, can he sue to stop the redevelopment? Ask for compensation; request that the land be awarded to them or "another body?"

The government can use "eminent domain" to take private property in court for the "public good." But in this case we can't move forward with the redevelopment of land already owned by the government because of endless court challenges that ignore the good of the surrounding communities.

Somewhere in all of this mess it has been forgotten that in meetings after the base closure was announced, person after person got up and said "give the fort away if the new owners bring back good jobs." That was PMDC's whole reason for existing, to bring good jobs to the area. If COPT can meet that requirement, help with a community center, fields for sports and allow the use of the open space around the lakes, they will have satisfied everything that has been asked of them.

It is not the purpose of this letter to endorse the COPT/PMDC contract. PMDC board members volunteered their time and various talents to do that task. They should be applauded for their hard work and dedication, not accused of wrong-doing.

There is no such thing as a perfect contract that will make every member of our community happy. But there is a signed contract between the organization that Washington County and the State of Maryland created to conduct the redevelopment and a company with a proven track record and the assets and connections to make this a reality. Haven't we waited long enough?

Gary Muller is a resident of Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.

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