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While you're eating eggs at the chamber meeting tomorrow..

December 19, 2005

By Jim Lemon and Robin Biser

"The largest real estate project Washington County has ever seen." That is how the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce describes the plans of Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) to redevelop Fort Ritchie, and that will be the topic of discussion at the Chamber's Dec. 14 "Eggs and Issues" breakfast meeting. We would like to point out several "issues" related to this project that surely qualify for discussion at the meeting.

First, federal law requires that redevelopment plans for closed military bases undergo environmental impact assessments so that local communities will know how those plans will impact their schools, roads, water consumption, air quality, traffic congestion and all the other things that affect quality of life. This requirement helps protect base closure communities from inappropriate development and all of the resultant unwanted and unintended consequences. Because the COPT redevelopment plan is more intense than anything that has ever existed at Fort Ritchie before, and because the plan has never been subjected to an environmental review - despite the fact it was approved by PenMar well over a year ago - the public has no knowledge of the project's potential impact on the adjacent rural villages of Cascade and PenMar, and nearby Blue Ridge Summit and Sabillasville.

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As Cascade homeowners, we want to know what that impact would be in case it is unacceptable. Accordingly, we have filed a lawsuit to obtain an environmental impact review of the COPT plan.

Second, federal law requires additional protection for the "Camp Ritchie Historic District," a portion of the base that has been designated as eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2001, PenMar successfully sued a former tenant in Washington County Circuit Court for erecting two flag poles next to a building in the Historic District. In court, PenMar brandished a letter from Maryland's State Historic Preservation Officer stating that the flag poles constituted "an adverse impact on the historic district" and "diminish(ed) the features that qualified Fort Ritchie for listing on the National Register." Yet, last year, PenMar inexplicably approved the COPT plan which calls for the construction of two suburban office buildings right on Camp Ritchie's historic parade ground. In response, and because we believe the Camp Ritchie Historic District is an extremely valuable community and national asset, our lawsuit seeks to prohibit the elements of any development plan that would adversely impact the Historic District or diminish its historic integrity, regardless of whom the developer or tenant may be.

Lastly, federal law requires "no-cost" local redevelopment authorities (LRAs) such as PenMar (i.e., LRA's that are asking to receive closed bases at no cost from the federal government) to submit an application that accurately describes the redevelopment plan, explains how proceeds from the project will be invested and identifies the entity that will manage and develop the property.

However, PenMar's application gives no hint that PenMar intends to instantaneously "flip" the entire base to a real estate investment trust (COPT) so that a very different and much more intense redevelopment plan can be implemented.

Furthermore, the application states that PenMar will use its money to upgrade Fort Ritchie's valuable water supply system and then hand it over to the county, even though PenMar has since agreed to sell the very same water system to COPT, and now COPT wants the county to negotiate to get it back, even though COPT doesn't even own it yet.

We object to those kinds of dealings. Accordingly, our lawsuit seeks to require the LRA to stand behind the representations it makes to the federal government concerning the disposition and reuse of the base property and assets it has asked to receive at no cost.

Above all else, unwarranted secrecy and failures to comply with the law are the two things that have most bedeviled redevelopment at Fort Ritchie, and both continue unabated. Hopefully, some more concerned citizens will dig into them so that we can move forward at Fort Ritchie.




Jim Lemon and Robin Biser are Cascade property owners.

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