Anne Arundel County lawyers say the District of Columbia is violating local laws by operating a correctional boot camp on land zoned for residential use and are threatening to take legal action.
District officials argue, however, that the camp is on federal property, paid for with a federal grant and not subject to county law.
Ulysses B. Hammond, executive officer of the Courts of the District of Columbia, wrote in a one-page letter the county received last week that the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution "shields activities on federal property from state regulations."
Since Oct. 10, the District of Columbia Superior Court has run its Urban Services Program on a swath of federal property bordered by Route 32, Route 198 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
County officials complain they were not told when the camp would open until a week before the first juveniles arrived and say they are worried about runaways. In the camp's first week, three inmates left and the camp staff called county police to bring them back.
The police caught the youths, but had no legal authority to do so because they did not have arrest warrants, Lisa Ritter, a spokeswoman for the county executive, said.
"Our greatest concern is that someone will walk away, and we do not have the legal right to detain them," Ms. Ritter said. "That to the county executive is not for the well-being of the community."
For decades, Washington has leased the area for its juvenile detention centers, which also could be affected by a ruling if the county goes to court.
The Urban Services Program consists of quasi-military boot camp for nonviolent juveniles and young adults who are on probation. The monthlong camp, in session eight times a year, is based at Forest Haven's Jones Hall, part of a former mental institution on the federal property.
County lawyers say Anne Arundel zoning laws prohibit correctional facilities on land zoned for residential use and correctional facilities run by jurisdictions other than the state or county. The youth camp is not exempt, the lawyers say, because is not for federal use, but for the District of Columbia.
"The fact that it's federal property with federal funding doesn't mean it's federal government use," said Stephen LeGendre, deputy county attorney. "This is different from federal property and running a military base on it."
Mr. LeGendre said the District must close the camp or have the county law changed in order to be in compliance. Otherwise, the county will seek a court injunction to close the camp, he said.
County Executive John G. Gary supports the idea of a boot camp but believes the District is flouting county laws, his spokeswoman said.
"The county executive is very distressed about this situation," Ms. Ritter said. "He's truly concerned that the D.C. Superior Court is not playing in good faith."
The apparent zoning violation is only the latest snag in relations between the county and the District.
During the summer District officials began drafting a memorandum of understanding between the two jurisdictions concerning the boot camp. That memorandum never was completed or signed.
Previous escapes from the District's youth detention centers have troubled community relations. Two years ago, civic leaders worked with congressional delegates to close Cedar Knoll, a medium-security District detention center near Forest Haven from which 177 inmates escaped or failed to return from weekend passes from 1990 through 1992.
Residents, however, supported the Urban Services Program because District court officials worked with local civic groups. They gave out pager numbers to use in emergencies and helped set up a siren at the Maryland City Fire Station.
But the recent boot camp escapes have made residents wary.
BTC "If kids start breaking out, we want it closed down," said William O'Reilly, 67, an officer in the Maryland City Civic Association. "I like the program, but if they can't enforce it, why have it?"