Military pushes for closure of Oak Hill

D.C. opposes plan to use detention center land to expand Fort Meade

August 07, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

For two decades, District of Columbia leaders have opposed efforts by western Anne Arundel County communities to close a beleaguered juvenile detention center between Laurel and Fort Meade.

But now the district-run Oak Hill Youth Center may be getting in the way of a far more influential neighbor: the military.

With the Pentagon planning to significantly expand Fort Meade, particularly intelligence operations there, some county and Maryland leaders sense an opportunity to shut down the maximum-security juvenile detention center and take control of the strategic parcel.

Last week, the future of Oak Hill was on County Executive Janet S. Owens' agenda as she had lunch with district Mayor Anthony A. Williams in Annapolis.

That afternoon, U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes announced that he had introduced legislation to close the much-criticized facility and relocate it, preferably to the district. Sarbanes wants Oak Hill's 888 acres divvied up among the county, Fort Meade and the National Park Service.

Fort Meade expects to take on tens of thousands of intelligence-related jobs in the coming decades. The location of Oak Hill, just across Route 32 from Fort Meade, offers the Army post room to grow as a national intelligence center and to provide those assets with additional security.

"There is some big interest to move forward and close that place up," said Del. Brian R. Moe, who represents parts of Prince George's County and western Anne Arundel. He and the three other members of the 21st District delegation have offered their support for Sarbanes' bill.

District officials said last year that they were committed to improving the complex. The district's City Council approved a plan last year to close Oak Hill and replace it with smaller facilities that meet national standards.

Williams spokesman Vincent Morris said city leaders were not interested in vacating the site.

"It's not part of the city's plans to discuss it," Morris said. "It's not on the radar."

The recent push among some Maryland leaders follows a Pentagon recommendation to shift 5,300 jobs to Fort Meade over the coming years.

Within weeks, state leaders and officials at the Army post began to speculate that Fort Meade could expand by tens of thousands of jobs in the years ahead, many of them related to intelligence operations at the National Security Agency.

In June, Fort Meade officials unveiled a three-decade master plan for growth in and around the Army post, with an emphasis on improved security for NSA and its growing cadre of contracting partners. One plank calls for using a piece of Oak Hill's land as a security buffer near Route 32 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

The idea for a security buffer is consistent with bills that have been introduced by Sarbanes and U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate.

It's also in line with Owens' thinking. All three want to divvy up the Oak Hill property and use it for parkland, a business park that would likely support NSA contractors and a security buffer.

Cardin has made the closing of Oak Hill a priority. He and local leaders have worked mostly in the shadows for the past two years trying to persuade district officials. Hearings on his bill will take place on Capitol Hill next month.

Sarbanes was noncommittal about Oak Hill's future in an interview in February. But Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for the senator, said that he and Cardin have been talking for months about the facility.

Sarbanes is confident that the Pentagon's base realignment proposals to move more than 6,000 net jobs to Maryland will be approved, and he is now making Oak Hill a priority, Jacobs said.

Morris said that neither of the congressional bills constitutes a "solid plan."

"The truth is, there are too many unknowns. It's not reasonable to ... introduce a bill without follow-through," he said, speaking to the conditions under which the facility would be moved and where.

Owens was quick to acknowledge the challenges of finding a location in or near Washington for the 208-bed detention center for offenders ages 14 to 21. Oak Hill has been burdened by management woes, crowding, escapes, drug use and abuse.

With land in Washington becoming available, the possibility has arisen that a replacement for the juvenile center could be found. For example, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and its 113 acres in northwest Washington are slated for closing in the Pentagon base recommendations.

But based on her discussion with Williams, Owens doubted a location such as Walter Reed would be viable.

"The key will be ... trying to meet the needs of the D.C. juvenile justice system," Owens said. "He was dubious about finding a relevant property in the district."

Owens said she perceived her face-to-face discussion with Williams as a breakthrough, and is hopeful that it will mark the "beginning of a conversation" on Oak Hill.

One community leader in Laurel, Tim Reyburn, said that the closing of Oak Hill is not a question of if, but only when.

"The closing of Oak Hill will occur because of BRAC," said Reyburn, president of the Russett Community Association. "The freight train is coming. The question is whether he [Williams] if going to stand in front of this and get run over."

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