WASHINGTON – The District of Columbia should close its troubled youth detention facility outside Laurel and redistribute its 800 acres of prime real estate to Anne Arundel County and national park and security agencies, Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, told a congressional committee Friday.
With the Fort Meade area expanding by 5,000 jobs over the next several years and “substantial growth” expected along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Cardin said Maryland needs the land for “environmental, recreational and economic opportunities.”
Cardin’s proposal, H.R. 316, would mean tearing down the Oak Hill Youth Center — long criticized for its dilapidated buildings and mismanagement — and turning over the federal land. It also would mean development revenues would be used to reimburse the federal government for construction costs for a new state-of-the-art youth facility, preferably within Washington’s borders.
Under the plan, wetlands west of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway would be transferred to the National Park Service. Land east of the parkway and north of the Little Patuxent River would be used by the National Security Agency headquarters in Ft. Meade. And the largest section, south of the river, would go to the county.
Matt Diehl, an Anne Arundel County spokesman, said County Executive Janet Owens wants a park along the Little Patuxent River, which runs into federal property.
Owens believes the area around the river “is an absolute visual jewel for the citizens of our county,” Diehl said.
District Mayor Anthony Williams and the City Council plan to close Oak Hill within four years, said Councilman Adrian Fenty. The idea is to build new, smaller facilities on the same Laurel site, an option strongly opposed by Maryland lawmakers who want to put the land to other use.
“The property cannot be rehabilitated,” Cardin told the committee. “The property needs to be knocked down. We need a new facility.”
A new facility built within Washington would let juveniles stay closer to their families and the Washington court system, Cardin said.
In addition, the National Security Agency needs to secure its periphery, especially where the juvenile center now stands, Cardin said.
The county also needs additional land for the private development likely to follow Ft. Meade’s expansion in the wake of Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommendations, Cardin said.
Built in 1967, the youth center lies in Cardin’s 3rd Congressional District. Before district lines were redrawn in 2000, the site fell within Rep. Steny Hoyer’s, D-Mechanicsville, district.
Cardin said he has worked closely on his proposal with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. While calling the plan “innovative and attractive,” Norton said its success depended on finding an alternate site within city limits.
“The District is a small and constricted city whose land is disproportionately occupied by the federal government, the major reason that Congress located the facility outside of the city in the first place,” Norton said.
Federal legislation is required to transfer the land, according to Cardin’s office.
Norton sympathized with state lawmakers who found Oak Hill’s presence awkward, she said.
“The District was not responsible for putting this property in someone else’s district,” Norton said. “Congress put it there in that huge space. We didn’t do it.”
Hoyer also testified in support of Cardin’s proposal in front of the House Committee on Government Reform, saying he had been approached in the past by constituents concerned about the number of escaped juveniles from the then-two federal detention centers just west of Fort Meade.
The other center, Cedar Knoll, was ordered closed in 1993.
“I heard loud and clear from the citizens of the area about the all-too-familiar problems of mismanagement, deteriorating living conditions, lack of educational programs and most notably the unacceptable number of inmate escapes into the community,” Hoyer said in his prepared remarks.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., has introduced an equivalent bill in the Senate, S. 1564, which was referred to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.