Site-picking process stuck, discredited

November 30, 1992|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

The county executive insists he won't rule out his chosen jai site, even though it's contaminated with radioactive material.

The County Council's chosen site has aggravated the Annapolis City Council, which had no idea the city was even being considered.

The jail advisory committee has been discredited by the county executive and completely ignored by just about everybody.

How did we get into this mess?

Most county residents and lawmakers first learned of County Executive Robert R. Neall's proposal to build a 650-bed detention center on New Ordnance Road in Glen Burnie in January. Outraged residents charged Mr. Neall with trying to sneak the $80 million project by them. Mr. Neall denied the charge.

North County residents jammed a County Council hearing on a resolution supporting the jail site in early February, forcing the council to postpone a vote. During that meeting, reports first surfaced -- confirmed only two weeks ago -- that the site contained radioactive materials.

Residents kept the pressure up, crowding the Glen Burnie High School auditorium at a public hearing in February. In early March, several council members and residents toured the site with officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and other federal agencies, who assured them the property was free from hazardous materials.

Council Chairman David G. Boschert asked the officials to put their assurances in writing; they agreed and promised the letter by June 30. The NRC letter, which finally arrived Nov. 16, reversed earlier assurances and labeled the site contaminated.

On March 16, the council rejected a resolution endorsing the New Ordnance Road site, with only Councilwomen Diane R. Evans and Maureen Lamb voting in favor.

The council's rejection was a critical blow against Mr. Neall's attempt to secure state funding for half of the jail's construction costs. The Senate on April 1 rejected a bill to provide $1.25 million in design money after the county's senators split on supporting it.

But the vote did not deter Mr. Neall, who included the jail in the capital budget he submitted to the council in May. The council approved the money, but made it part of the legislative account, meaning council members must vote again to release the money.

At the same time, the council approved a proposal by Mr. Neall for a Detention Center/Alternative Sentences Task Force, appointed in July.

The task force decided to review nine sites originally considered by the county. Midway through their deliberations, members dropped the Ordnance Road site from consideration, citing a consultant's report done for the Coca-Cola Co. that indicated possible chemical and heavy metal contamination. At this point, no letter had come from the NRC.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Neall criticized the task force for "playing games" by considering sites that he said clearly did not meet the county's criteria for a new detention center. Ms. Evans, one of three council members on the task force, quit the group, saying it strayed from its mission of finding a new site and was spending too much time discussing alternative sentencing.

Frustrated by a two-month time limit, task force members narrowed their focus to four properties: two in heavily residential communities in Millersville and Pasadena; a farm in Crownsville, which the owner did not want to sell; and the fourth, a gravel pit in Davidsonville, a remote location with insurmountable sewerage system problems.

The task force settled on the Millersville location, the deciding factor being that the property owner was willing to sell. More than 1,000 enraged community members greeted the news by demanding that the jail be built on county-owned property in a non-residential area.

The County Council also repudiated the task force's recommendation, voting instead on a location never considered in any previous deliberations: the present detention center, near Annapolis. That infuriated Annapolis officials, who first learned of the council's plan by reading about it in the newspaper less than one week before the vote. Last week, the City Council passed a resolution condemning the vote.

In the still-evolving saga's latest chapter, Mr. Neall has rejected the council's choice, labeling it merely a short-term solution. After the revelation that barrels of radioactive thorium stored at the site leaked and contaminated soil at the New Ordnance Road site, Mr. Neall said he will pursue federal funding to clean up the property.

He still wants the jail on New Ordnance Road.

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