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At Fort Ritchie, 'vindication' is still years away

August 28, 2005|By Tim Rowland

Just as President Bush's declaration of "Mission accomplished" proved to be slightly premature, PenMar leaders who cried "Vindication!" this week are understandably but incorrectly heaping praise upon themselves.

The board's pronouncements followed an attorney general's opinion, saying PenMar wasn't required to appraise the old Fort Ritchie property before it was sold.

But if they can shake some sort of applause out of what was otherwise a pretty damning report, it just shows how needy the PenMar board has become for any kind of - if not praise, then acceptance.

In essence, the report says no, you didn't need to have the property appraised, but why in the world wouldn't you? In its own words, the report dryly notes, "once PenMar abandoned its strategic plan to use a master developer and decided to sell the property, it might well have been useful to obtain a benchmark for the value of the item it was selling...

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"Armed with reliable information as to the market value of the property, an entity like PenMar is better informed in bargaining over the termsof a contract with a developer/purchaser."

Not that PenMar has ever concerned itself much about being "better informed" about anything. In fact, the whole sale of Fort Ritchie to Corporate Office Properties Trust smacks of a "We don't know and we don't want to know" attitude, in which the board is clamping its hands over its ears, squeezing its eyes shut and praying everything works out OK.

And it might. COPT is a strong company. And if I were a shareholder, I'd be darned pleased with the way COPT took the PenMar board by the scruff of the neck, bent it over a log and beat its negotiators into a submissive pulp.

In a way it's fair, and I mean this. The county didn't pay anything for the fort, and it's not going to get anything for the fort. But let's stop pussyfooting it around calling it a great deal for everyone, when in fact it is just one, huge corporate giveaway. And that's all it is. This was a deal made out of desperation, after nearly a decade of abject failure.

COPT got the land for what probably amounted to pennies on the dollar. COPT doesn't want to pay for utilities. COPT wants a recreation facility for the community, but it wants PenMar to pick up most of the tab. COPT doesn't even want to pay standard taxes.

Much of the base redevelopment was supposed to be about "getting the government property back on the tax rolls," yet according to the contract, as outlined in the AG opinion, "PenMar also agreed to take 'reasonable efforts' to induce Washington County to limit the amount of property tax levied against the property for the first six years after closing."

Heavens, why not just give COPT the whole mountain and be done with it? If the County Commissioners allow PenMar to all but give away the land and then in addition agree to let COPT get a tax break while the rest of us are paying ever increasing assessments, they ought to be ridden out of office on a rail.

I'm of the opinion that if COPT does what it says it will do in terms of job creation, pays its taxes and makes a good-faith effort to include the Cascade community into its redevelopment, it ultimately won't matter what they paid for the property. Indeed, the cost of the property is something of an academic exercise, because the sale price goes to PenMar and PenMar's bankroll must ultimately be pumped back into the base.

But the Army, quite frankly, isn't much concerned with the definition of "pumped back." In other words, sale proceeds -had they been high enough - might have been used to buy, for example, a new elementary school.

But that's money over the bridge at this point. All that's left at this point is just to put our trust in COPT to do the right thing. Those in the PenMar board who negotiated this deal better be praying that it does. Because if all of a sudden COPT begins selling off chunks of the property at a substantial profit (or "flipping," as Realtors call it) and throws up a few bunkers of community unfriendly office space and nothing more, all of a sudden the folks who signed off on this deal are going to have some uncomfortable questions to answer for.

The attorney general's office vindicated no one. Vindication will only come with time, if the deal plays out as PenMar is telling us it will. Right now, the odds are probably a little better than even money. COPT certainly can't complain about the deal it's getting, and it's a company with a good track record and a good reputation. At this point there is no reason to believe they will be less than honorable.

Anymore, corporate giveaways are the norm, and remember that PenMar was not exactly dealing from a position of strength. People who suggest that the board could have done wildly better should be realistic. Had the board and its chain of weak directors been normal and nondysfunctional from the get go, perhaps things would have worked out better, and a true master redeveloper might have made this beautiful setting into a base-reuse showpiece.

But as usual in Washington County, it didn't work out. At least COPT is in the position to pick up a few of the pieces for us. If the board feels comfortable crowing that this is somehow "vindication" - well, call it an example of our low standards.

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