Anne Arundel chief executive surprised by Oak Hill plans

Washington plans to build new youth facility on land in Laurel

May 01, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,Sun reporter

Anne Arundel County's chief executive said he was surprised to learn yesterday that work is imminent on a new 60-bed District of Columbia facility for delinquents near the site of its troubled Oak Hill juvenile prison in Laurel - despite a U.S. Senate proposal that would move it to Washington.

County Executive John R. Leopold was to meet with Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to discuss the future use of the land when he learned of the new 60-bed building to be constructed. It will replace the decrepit 200-bed building on the other side of the nearly 900-acre parcel.

But Fenty did not show up - sending aides instead because of two serious fires in his city yesterday.

Joining Leopold for the tour were Rep. John Sarbanes, whose district includes Laurel, and aides to Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who, with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, had reintroduced legislation in March to move the Oak Hill facility to Washington. Half of the land would be given to the military, which would use at least a portion as a security buffer for the National Security Agency. The other half would be handed over to Anne Arundel County.

"I don't know what D.C. is building," Cardin spokeswoman Susan Sullam said from Baltimore, adding that the district government has "not confirmed to us what they are doing."

"We had filed this bill to make sure that this didn't happen," Sullam said.

Sarbanes said he believes Maryland and District of Columbia officials will pursue negotiations in the coming weeks.

"My understanding from the community around the facility is that their expectation is that Oak Hill would be relocated to the District of Columbia," Sarbanes said. "That is the premise of the legislation on the Senate side. It's a perspective I share, so we will work from there."

Leopold, a Republican, and the Democratic Maryland congressional officials had been optimistic that the district government, under its new mayor, would consider building a replacement for Oak Hill in Washington. Before taking office last year, Fenty repeatedly called for closing Oak Hill, which currently houses about 60 teenagers.

But as part of the tour, Leopold learned that under conditions of a D.C. Superior Court order, the city has begun construction of a $46 million facility for boys that would meet national environmental building standards.

It would have three 20-bed housing units and provide 48,000 square feet of floor space. It would include a pedestrian courtyard with basketball courts, a gym, and a combined field for baseball and football. It would also house the administrative offices of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services.

Contractors have begun asbestos abatement work on several now-vacant buildings on the property, and groundbreaking is expected within a few weeks on the juvenile facility that is scheduled to be open next May. At that time, the remaining detainees at the Oak Hill site will be transferred into the new building.

Leopold called the news "a revelation, an unexpected revelation."

"We had been given some hope that D.C. would find a suitable location within the district," Leopold said. "That, of course, was dispelled today."

Washington juvenile officials said word of the project should not have been a surprise. A spokeswoman referred to a September 2005 news release announcing plans by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams to build a facility housing 36 beds and renovate another to house 24 beds. That followed the City Council's vote in 2004 to approve a plan to close Oak Hill and replace it with smaller facilities that meet national standards.

"Our plans are for a new secure facility that will be more efficient and more effective," Williams said in the 2005 statement. "And I am looking forward to putting a shovel in the ground for the new facility."

Leopold said he had intended to use the majority of the county's piece of the property for a regional park and possibility a fraction of it for offices, retail and residential development.

Fires at Washington's historic Eastern Market and the Georgetown branch of the district library kept Fenty from attending, city officials said. A spokeswoman for the mayor did not return messages seeking comment on the Oak Hill project.

Fenty said in March that he wanted to meet with Cardin and Mikulski to discuss their ideas. "We certainly want to find a solution that balances all the competing priorities," Fenty said in an e-mailed statement at the time.

Built in 1967, on the site of a 1929 land grant from the federal government to Washington, Oak Hill has housed as many as 240 juveniles in the past - and in recent years was burdened by management problems, drug use, crowding and escapes.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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