WASHINGTON – The process for determining what to do with the 591-acre surplus Fort Ritchie began again Tuesday, restarting the clock on a process that Washington County officials thought they wrapped up last year.
The Department of Defense declared the fort surplus again in Tuesday’s Federal Register. Now, the PenMar Redevelopment Corp. has 30 days to publish the notice in a local newspaper, followed by 90 days for applicants to propose a use for the site.
The second round of paperwork is the result of a court decision that local officials said will just prolong the process of bringing jobs back to the area, which lost 2,000 jobs when the base closed in 1998.
“The conveyance process could take up to a year, if there are interested parties,” said Richard Rook, executive director for PenMar, a state-created entity whose goal is to maximize economic opportunities for Washington County.
“There was not any interest previously. The advertising took place with the information that was available back in the 1990s,” Rook said.
Just days before PenMar was to announce that it was taking title to the former fort last May, Role Models America Inc. filed suit, claiming that it had been denied an opportunity to file its plan to open a school on the site.
A lower court denied the claim, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Role Models America in February. The court said that the way the Defense Department reached its decision to convey the base to PenMar violated legal requirements, saying Role Models “failed to receive the notice mandated by regulation.”
“Role Models’ experience perfectly illustrates the need for proper notice,” the opinion said.
The base-closure law gives federal agencies six months to lay claim to a site after the decision is made to close the facility. If the agencies pass, the property is advertised as surplus.
Within 30 days of that notice, an entity established by the state, like PenMar, must publish the time period in which it will receive applications from “representatives of the homeless and other interested parties.”
The court said that when it advertised Fort Ritchie, the redevelopment agency only said it was looking for groups that sought “to serve the needs of our community’s homeless population” and did not mention “other interested parties.”
Role Models America could not be located for comment Tuesday, and calls to its attorney were not returned.
The fort in the Catoctin Mountain Range on Maryland-Pennsylvania border closed Oct. 1, 1998, leaving behind a 591-acre tract with 252 buildings totaling 1.38 million square feet of space, according to the Federal Register.
“2,000 jobs were lost at Fort Ritchie when it closed,” Rook said. “That had a dramatic effect on local business.”
PenMar’s 20-year redevelopment plan for the site calls for construction of a corporate conference center and leasing of existing space for offices, training, research and development. It will be called the Lakeside Corporate Center at PenMar.
The fort began as a resort for wealthy Mid-Atlantic urbanites before the state bought the site in 1926 to create a National Guard training site. During World War II, the site was used for counterintelligence training and in the 1950s it was a support base for nearby Site R, a top-secret command structure known as the “Underground Pentagon.”
In the 1970s, Fort Ritchie became a high-tech military communications center, but by the mid-1990s the fort had outlived its usefulness.