Recent Fort Ritchie fuss should be resolved quickly

December 05, 2009

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Camp Ritchie got its start because it had something that bases closer to Baltimore lacked: A breeze.

Guardsmen wearied of training in hot, muggy coastal summers, so they sought a mountain retreat that might be a little more forgiving to sweating troops.

In the summer of 1926, Capt. Robert Barrick, with apparent skepticism, viewed the forested, stone-studded surroundings and reported back: "Well, here we stood. Challenge. Go ahead. Make a camp out of this place."

Today, executives with Corporate Office Properties Trust - which bought the land from the military - must be thinking much the same thing. Challenge. Go ahead. Make an office park out of this place."


Then it was rock ledges, today it's lawsuits. A federal judge put a halt to redevelopment of the former Fort Ritchie last month and instructed the Army to rethink its environmental impact statement.

After all it's been through over the past 15 years, you have to wonder what's left that could possibly happen to Fort Ritchie - it gets hit by a comet?

You can't tell judges how to rule or communities how to feel, but at this point there is a hunger to see the Ritchie saga settled once and for all. If COPT succeeds, it will positively affect tax and employment bases in several counties and two states.

Of course the residents of the Cascade area are of prime importance, but the Ritchie property has implications for many people living far beyond the mountain. This has the chance to be one local positive in a sea of economic negatives.

This is not to diminish the base's considerable historic and natural treasures, or the efforts of the people who fight for their protection.

But COPT, for better or worse, is not in the business of running museums. Nor would any corporation charged with the mission or redeveloping the land into economic usefulness be able to proceed without wholesale changes to the life and look of the old fort.

Nice as it might have been to freeze the beautiful base in time forevermore, no preservation-only model would have been economically viable. And without economic viability, no one, government included, would have the money to keep the old stone buildings from crumbling to dust.

If we can't preserve history exactly, preserving its essence is a viable compromise.

COPT, from what I've seen, appears to recognize the values of history and the surrounding community. At its core, the plan calls for 2 million square feet, more or less, of office space, nearly 700 residences and a hotel and conference center. But it also provides for a community center, lakeside nature trails and sports fields.

Indeed, with so many business and residential interests at stake, preserving the quality of mountaintop life is in COPT's best interests.

Plaintiffs argue that the Army's original environmental impact statement was based on a general redevelopment, not COPT's plan specifically. And that COPT's plan is beyond the scale of what the Army anticipated early on.

That's a plausible argument in a perfect world. But the last 15 years should have taught us that there is no perfect world and for Ritchie there is no perfect plan - one that will satisfy everyone and make Ritchie into everything that everyone wants it to be.

Over time, administrators of Ritchie have alternated between being overly picky and overly panicky. Good uses weren't good enough. Or bad uses were rushed into place, perhaps on the fear that no better offer might come along.

Space doesn't permit a recap of 15 years of dysfunction and intrigue, which is outstanding, even for a base that used to produce World War II spies.

During the war, the military built virtual movie sets at Ritchie that included mock-ups of German homes and headquarters, where everyone spoke German and the maps were printed in foreign languages. One priceless old photo shows a soldier/actor dressed as Adolph Hitler, right down to the clipped mustache. He's doing his best, giving the Nazi salute and looking fierce, but the "German" soldiers in the audience are doing a poor job of stifling their laughter.

So maybe, for this Ritchie in Wonderland, this latest upheaval is just par for the course. But at the very least, COPT deserves credit for bringing some sanity, not to mention investment, to the situation. Ritchie could have done a lot worse. And for everyone's sake, it would be nice if this latest hiccup were resolved as quickly as possible.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at, on or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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