Fort Ritchie sale finalized

Plan calls for homes, offices, influx of jobs at former Army base

October 06, 2006|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun reporter

The long-delayed sale of the former Fort Ritchie Army base closed yesterday, paving the way for a Columbia-based commercial developer to build a mixed-use development that could bring in 4,500 jobs to Western Maryland in 10 to 15 years.

Corporate Office Properties Trust, which has had the 591-acre base under contract for more than two years, said it acquired the property for $5 million from PenMar Development Corp., the state agency created to redevelop the closed base in the mountains of Washington County.

The purchase price is tied to COPT's ability to create 1,400 permanent jobs in nine years and will rise to $9 million if that goal falls short.

The sale had been held up by a series of legal challenges and the lengthy cleanup of hazardous materials, such as unexploded ordnance from World War I. The fort closed in 1998 as part of a federal base restructuring.

"The important thing is this now provides an opportunity for jobs to be created and for the fort to finally come back to life," said Randall M. Griffin, president and chief executive officer of COPT, the state's largest owner of suburban offices, which counts many government agencies and defense contractors among its tenants. "Fort Ritchie is really the opportunity to create a unique community that has the ability on the same location to live and work in the same place."

The $300 million project is to include 1.7 million square feet of office space on 79 acres, and 673 apartments, condos, townhouses and single-family homes on 135 acres.

The site will also have 24 acres of lakes, 20 acres of community areas, new stores and a museum and will retain some of the original base rental housing. Griffin said COPT could move forward with demolition of some of the older World War II barracks within a month.

"We're quite pleased that this thing finally went through after many frustrating years, because we're now able to meet our legal mission ... to bring back jobs that were lost here and to improve the economy and create a tax base," said George G.B. Griffin, chairman of the board of PenMar.

He said since the base in Cascade closed eight years ago, many area residents have resorted to long commutes to work in Washington or Baltimore.

"Jobs were lost, businesses were closed and people moved," he said.

Recent court rulings cleared the way for COPT to settle on all but 91 acres yesterday. The developer expects the remaining acreage to be turned over once the Army finishes environmental reviews of it.

The District of Columbia Circuit Court on Wednesday denied two motions filed by opponents of the sale, including Role Models America, a previous tenant at the base. Those motions had been filed after a judge last month dismissed a previous case filed by Role Models America against the government's redevelopment plans and lifted an injunction blocking the transfers.

Over the past several years, "We've been trying hard to bring the base on to productive use," Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said yesterday. "COPT is one of the best real estate companies for dealing with federal agencies, and we're targeting federal agencies to locate offices. We're looking in anticipation for COPT to move quickly on this and to create a couple thousand jobs."

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