Area residents, officials skirmish with Army over best use for choice, undeveloped land


October 22, 1990|By Michael Enright | Michael Enright,Special to The Sun

,TC Anne Arundel County residents and officials have waged their battles against land-hungry developers over the years, but they never thought they would hit the front lines against the Army in a real estate war.

For years, the Army has maintained its 13,670-acre Fort Meade military reservation as one of the last large undeveloped chunks of land in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

As part of a congressional mandate to cut operating costs at hundreds of obsolete or underused bases throughout the United States, the Army announced in 1988 that 9,000 acres at Fort Meade would be decommissioned and put up for sale.

Virtually no one argued that the Army shouldn't unload the land. But everyone, it seems, has an idea about the best use for such a prime piece of real estate.

Initially, the Army had said it would sell the land to private developers for hundreds of millions of dollars; outraged state officials and environmental groups, however, said that in a region of such tremendous growth, it was critical to preserve the land.

The Army's critics recommended that it be donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an addition to the adjacent Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Before the final compromise was passed by Congress on July 30, the Army had offered to leave 6,000 acres as open space and sell the remaining 3,000 acres for $130 million.

In the end, with the help of pressure from the Maryland congressional delegation, the Army agreed to transfer 7,600 acres to the Fish and Wildlife Serviceand sell the remaining 1,400 acres.

The land slated for open space includes portions of two rivers and the natural habitats of several rare animal species, including nesting areas for bald eagles.

What will become of the 1,400 acres has become the issue of debate in and around the neighboring areas and a source of contention between Army brass, state and local officials and neighboring civic groups.

But no one has much leverage to do anything about it right now.

Indeed, the Army has yet to receive the official word from Congress to sell off the property, said Scott Saunders, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is acting as the Army's real estate agent.

"Nobody can do anything until there is a law that says this land can be sold," the Corps' spokesman said.

Although they don't seem to agree on much that has to do with Fort Meade, military and civic officials have agreed that the 400-acre Tipton Army Airfield, which is part of the 1,400-acre parcel, would be an excellent site for a general aviation airport.

Under the initial proposal, the 3,000-foot runway would be extended 1,000 feet to allow midsized private planes to land, but larger aircraft would not be able to use the site.

What happens to the remaining 1,000 acres will be the next skirmish.

The Fort Meade Coordinating Council, a locally appointed body charged with making a recommendation to the Army about the future use of the site, eventually decided that the 1,400-acre parcel should be divided into the 400-acre airfield and a 1,000-acre park.

"I'm opposed to even a chicken coop being put up there," said retired Lt. Col. Alfred Shehab, a spokesman for the group before it disbanded after issuing its recommendation. "I think we should just leave the blank thing alone."

But large blocks of prime real estate in the always lucrative Baltimore-Washington corridor don't come along very often, and no one expects the park proposal to be accepted without a fight.

The Army, which says it needs the money from sale of the property, originally foresaw a huge mixed-use project for the site, with thousands of homes, a hotel, and several million square feet of office and manufacturing space.

These plans have been shelved pending the outcome of an environmental-impact statement for the site and further land transaction proceedings, but few expect the Army to let those plans be forgotten.

Anne Arundel officials, however, haven't planned for any improvements to the land and don't expect to change their most recent master plan survey either.

"We don't have the infrastructure to handle any more development in that area," said Frank Ward, development administrator for the county. "We're againstanything that doesn't involve opening up green space for the public."

Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer has indicated that the county would even consider downzoning the land to ensure that more residential or commercial development is not allowed.

Other groups and businesses have come forward with ideas for portions of the 1,400-acre parcel. A recycling company said it would like to build a four-phase recycling center on part of the land that would convert trash to energy for up to 5,000 homes.

Another proposal was to create an off-road facility for motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles on some of the land.

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