Fort Ritchie is sold to Corporate Office Properties

Columbia REIT to develop 600-acre ex-Army base in Washington County

July 27, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

CASCADE - The former Fort Ritchie Army post in Washington County will be retooled into something new - what, though, isn't clear - by a Columbia developer of suburban offices filled with federal government agencies and their contractors.

PenMar Development Corp., the redevelopment authority for the post, signed a sales agreement with Corporate Office Properties Trust yesterday, though both sides have 90 days to reconsider.

Corporate Office Properties would not publicly reveal its plans for the site, about 600 acres in the Western Maryland mountaintop community of Cascade.

Randall M. Griffin, president and chief operating officer of Corporate Office Properties, said the firm had some ideas for the site but wanted to meet with residents first.

The company's other projects in Maryland include the National Business Park next to the National Security Agency, which is packed with NSA contractors.

Neither side would disclose the sale price for the property but both said it would be disclosed shortly.

The price, they said, would be affected by the number of jobs the company produces and how quickly it produces them. Griffin did estimate the company will spend "tens of millions" on infrastructure improvements on the 330 to 380 acres it's considering for development.

"The opportunities are tremendous," said Richard Rook, executive director of PenMar Development, which was created by the General Assembly in 1997 to develop the site. "With a company like Corporate Office Properties Trust at the helm, I think there's a chance that we could see more than the 1,500 jobs that were lost when the base closed. ...

"Forty percent of their business is government agencies and defense contractors, and this base is very well aligned to perform those kinds of functions."

It's been a bumpy ride to get to this turning point. Fort Ritchie closed in 1998 and has sat empty - save a few tenants - since then.

Last year a federal appeals court stopped the post from being transferred to PenMar, ruling that the government should have advertised that free land was available at Fort Ritchie to qualified nonprofit groups.

Rook believes that major roadblock will be cleared this year, and if the land can't be conveyed to PenMar within 90 days it will lease the land to Corporate Office Properties until it can sell it.

Cascade activists, meanwhile, are frustrated by the secrecy shrouding the deal with Corporate Office Properties and wish PenMar ran a competitive bidding process instead of jumping from one suitor to another. They sent a request yesterday to Maryland's U.S. senators for an independent review of the contract.

"We'll never know if we got the best deal, and now it looks like we might be having a fire sale instead, and that's cause for alarm," said Karl Weissenbach, director of the Cascade Committee, a community group that has become the Fort Ritchie redevelopment watchdog.

"Why can't they follow the procedures that have been utilized at other [post] closures around the country?"

Bill Wivell, a member of the PenMar board and vice president of the Washington County Commissioners, said he voted against the deal because he wanted to see a master development agreement, which would give PenMar more control over the site than a bulk sale.

"We have one chance here to get this right," he said. "I'm just not sure we're there."

Ron Sulchek, a PenMar board member and the former chairman, was also troubled that he couldn't confirm that a federal agency had asked Corporate Office Properties to redevelop Fort Ritchie on its behalf, as the board was told by the company.

"We basically started talking to them with the expectation that there would be immediate jobs right off the bat," Sulchek said before the contract was signed.

Lerner Enterprises, the North Bethesda developer of Tysons Corner Center and other large projects, spent nearly 18 months vying to be the post's master developer. The board appeared interested but then switched to Corporate Office Properties several months ago.

Kevin Rogers, who handled the negotiations for Lerner, said the company wanted to develop Fort Ritchie into a mix of uses that take into account its historic buildings and the community's desire for recreational space.

He said Lerner offered "significantly more" for the land than the $7.5 million the Cascade activists say COPT is offering, although the number could not be confirmed.

"We're still here and we're still enthusiastic, and if this does not work out for them, I'm certainly hoping [they] will give us a call and invite us in and we'll pick up where we left off," Rogers said.

Andrew Klopman, chief executive of Strategic Alliance Group in Pikesville, who proposed an economic development plan to bring more than 2,000 jobs by teaming up with corporations and nonprofits, is much less upbeat about his experience. He said he never got feedback about the proposal he submitted, and he called $7.5 million for Fort Ritchie "the slim-slam of a lifetime."

"I think that's fraud, because I'd give them more than that today," he said.

Sun staff writer Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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