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Lawsuit forces delay in development of former Fort Ritchie

November 23, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

CASCADE -- A federal judge has ordered redevelopment put on hold at the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base until the Army re-examines the plan's environmental impact.

That decision, issued Nov. 10 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was in response to a lawsuit filed in 2005 by area property owners Jim Lemon and Robin Biser.

The base was closed in 1998 and has been transferred to Corporate Office Properties Trust, a Columbia, Md., company that is building a business and residential development at the site.

The lawsuit

Lemon and Biser alleged in the suit that COPT's redevelopment plan called for a higher development intensity level than the scenarios the Army had evaluated in its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in 1998, and that the COPT plan introduced historic and water-related impacts not evaluated in the EIS.

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An EIS is required for major federal actions under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Army based its 1998 EIS on "likely development scenarios" from an early plan for the Fort Ritchie property more than six years before the final plan was approved, according to court documents.

In a memorandum opinion accompanying his order, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth wrote the Army had not proved it took a "hard look" at the final plan to determine whether additional environmental analysis was needed. The Army failed to look at the "raw numbers" in the COPT plan, such as estimates for how many commuter trips, construction vehicle trips and gallons of paint it would use, Lamberth wrote.

The Army's 1998 EIS studied the impact of developing up to 1.7 million square feet of built space and accommodating up to 3,845 employees and residents, but the COPT plan calls for 2.6 million square feet of built space and would accommodate an estimated 6,695 employees and residents, according to a chart the plaintiffs provided the court.

"Before the COPT may proceed, the Army must issue either a (Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement) addressing significant impacts of the COPT plan or a new (Record of Environmental Consideration) that makes a convincing case why the COPT plan presents no significant impacts above and beyond those determined in the EIS," Lamberth wrote.

Karen Singer, senior vice president and general counsel for COPT, said Monday the company was still determining what it could and could not do at the site as a result of the order.

"We're in the process of digesting what it will mean, and we're working with the Army's counsel and its representative to assist with and expedite resubmission of the amended Record of Environmental Consideration," Singer said.

Singer said she could not say how long the document would take to prepare, but said it was in the company's best interest to get it done promptly.

COPT previously said its plans for the site include 1.7 million square feet of office space -- with about half restricted to federal security and defense work -- and 673 homes and apartments. Plans also include a hotel and conference center, day care facility, community center, lakeside nature trails, and baseball and soccer fields.

Plaintiffs hope for change

Lemon and Biser's lawsuit was dismissed in August 2006, but they won an appeal in February 2008 that revived the case.

Both said Monday they were pleased the judge had ordered another look at the environmental impacts and hoped that process would result in changes to COPT's plan for the property.

"We haven't drug this out all these years just to watch them rubber stamp another piece of paper like they did in the first place," Biser said.

Of particular concern to the plaintiffs was COPT's plans for two office buildings on the historical Camp Ritchie Parade Ground. A 1997 plan said the parade ground would be maintained as open space, Biser said.

The judge's opinion specifically mentions this discrepancy from the original plan, saying "the Army should have addressed these blatant divergences" and should, at minimum, have explained how it would mitigate the buildings' effects on Fort Ritchie's historic resources.

Biser and Lemon said they also were concerned about the amount of impervious surface the project would add, which they said could cause flooding in the surrounding area. The chart they submitted in court estimates the project would add 50 acres of additional impervious surface, compared to only up to nine acres considered in the environmental impact statement.

One disappointment, the plaintiffs said, was that the judge decided the Army did not have to review the sale of Fort Ritchie's water system to COPT. Biser and Lemon had protested this transfer, saying the Army had originally agreed to transfer the water system to the county.

Lemon now lives in Vienna, Va., but still owns a home in the Cascade area and goes there frequently. Biser recently sold her home in Cascade to her daughter and son-in-law and lives in Waynesboro, Pa. Both said they still feel strongly about the future of Fort Ritchie.

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