RUTHSBURG — — Maryland officials rejoiced last month at news that this isolated Eastern Shore junction would be the future home of a major new State Department security center.
Tiny Ruthsburg, little-changed since the 1700s, is the federal government's preferred site for a state-of-the art campus where diplomatic security agents will train for the age of international terrorism. The 2,000-acre project offers years of construction work and hundreds of permanent, good-paying jobs in Queen Anne's County, which has suffered from rising unemployment and a conviction that its needs often get ignored in the power centers of Washington and Annapolis.
Now, though, local officials who were instrumental in generating support for the facility among Maryland's elected leaders have had a change of heart, complicating efforts to put it here. Members of the county commission have reversed course and joined an eclectic group of opponents who want the Obama administration to spend its construction money - from the federal stimulus package - some place else.
Echoing the alarmist claims of citizen critics, four of the five commissioners announced Dec. 22 that they could no longer support the project, in part because it would be used for .50-caliber machine-gun training, 40 mm grenade launching and helicopter operations. The State Department says none of those activities are planned for the center.
"A lot of it comes down to: Can you believe what the federal government tells you," maintains Queen Anne's Commissioner Eric Wargotz, who initially worked to attract the federal facility but now opposes it. Wargotz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, says he "absolutely" objects to $70 million in stimulus funds going to the facility in his county, which will cost more than $100 million to build.
The politicians "heard 'jobs, jobs, jobs,' and at that point, they stopped thinking. They never looked under the hood," said Jim Campbell, 71, a former partner at a high-powered Washington law firm who retired to a waterfront neighborhood on an arm of the Chesapeake Bay, about 10 miles from the proposed site.
He is among those aggressively opposing the project, a mix as diverse and piquant as the ingredients of Maryland crab soup: tea party protesters, Republican and Democratic politicians, local conservationists, property rights activists and Shore inhabitants deeply suspicious of the federal government's intentions and nervous about changes to their way of life.
They warn that the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center - with its driving tracks for teaching evasive maneuvers, mock urban center for live-fire training and explosives pit for detonating 3-pound bombs - would be a "little Aberdeen." Some are convinced the installation could eventually swallow more of the surrounding area, a roughly 30-square-mile swath of countryside with relatively few residents and little commercial development.
At the heart of the local opposition are a number of concerns, both practical and ideological: hostility to the stimulus law, worries about declining property values on nearby farms, possible environmental damage and noise from munitions blasts used to teach agents about roadside bombs.
The facility, to be built on privately owned grain fields across from Tuckahoe State Park, enjoys considerable support from the local Chamber of Commerce and other county and state economic development interests. Its appeal is also evident among local residents eager to find work closer to home than places such as Annapolis, 30 miles away on the other end of the Bay Bridge.
Earlier this month, when a State Department official announced some of the 400 permanent positions that would be filled at the center - jobs in buildings and grounds, food service, vehicle maintenance, janitorial and security services, firing range operations, emergency medical and fire protection, among others - applause rippled through an audience of 600 at a public hearing at the county high school in Centreville.
Rachel Carter Goss, 40, who comes from Centreville and now lives in tony Chestertown, stood and told the crowd she couldn't believe that people were actually serious about turning away badly needed employment.
"I have friends all over the area who are in construction and landscaping who don't have work. They are handing us jobs," she said, to a mix of catcalls and applause. "Maybe people can then buy the farmland that they wanted or buy the boat that they wanted."
As for fears that noise from the training center would disrupt the serenity of the area: "I wake up every morning to gunfire from hunters. I hear Aberdeen. If I'm near the water, I hear power boats," said Goss, a family friend of one of the landowners of the proposed site. "Why is this any different? Are we going to start putting silencers on our hunting guns?"