Feds look to unload excess property in Md.

Hundreds of structures to be demolished or sold

May 04, 2011|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — Hundreds of industrial buildings in Maryland owned by the federal government — from warehouses at the Antietam National Battlefield to a machine shop in Curtis Bay — would be sold or demolished under a White House initiative to dispose of excess government property.

In an effort to save billions of dollars annually in upkeep and energy costs on the often-vacant buildings, the Obama administration proposed last year ditching 14,000 properties the government no longer needs. A list of those properties released on Wednesday includes 320 in Maryland.

They include buildings at the Curtis Bay Depot, such as a 3,955-square-foot machine shop, nearly a dozen warehouses and other buildings at Antietam, 14 industrial buildings at the Aberdeen Proving Ground and excess family housing at Andrews Air Force base in Prince George's County.

Jeffrey Zients, a deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the list represented the "tip of the iceberg."

"We all know local politicians and leaders love to preside over ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Getting rid of property is a much less rewarding experience," Zients said during a conference call Wednesday. "That's why the government owns thousands of properties it doesn't need."

The federal government is the nation's largest property owner, with a portfolio that includes 900,000 buildings totaling more than 3 billion square feet of space, according to the Government Accountability Office. Six agencies, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Postal Service, occupy 88 percent of that space.

In addition to buildings that are no longer needed at all, 24 federal agencies have also identified 45,000 buildings that are underused, according to a GAO report from February. Those buildings cost $1.66 billion annually to operate, the report notes.

Disposing of the buildings is often complicated by cumbersome government regulations, Zients said. In some cases, departments must determine whether a building can be used by other agencies or for homeless shelters before it can be sold. The government is often required to assess whether a property has harmed the environment or whether it is historic.

"It's all well-intentioned, and in some cases it makes sense," Zients said.

To cut through the red tape, the administration proposed creating an independent board to package and sell off the lots. The panel, which would need congressional approval, would work similarly to the Defense Department's nonpolitical Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

Zients said many of the sites on the list released Wednesday have little commercial value. Those will be demolished. Buildings that are worth something will be sold.

James Leanos, vice president of the real estate brokerage firm Manekin, had not reviewed the property list but said he would not expect the sale of the federally owned warehouses to have a significant impact on the industrial real estate market. It could affect individual areas, depending on the quality of the properties, he said.

With the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives focused on finding ways to cut federal spending, several lawmakers have pointed to the excess federal property as an area for review. Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican who chairs a subcommittee with oversight of public buildings, sought the listing of the properties in March.

In a statement Wednesday, he called its release a "good first step."

The largest concentration of excess properties in Maryland — more than 170 buildings — is at the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agriculture Research Center, a 7,000-acre complex that straddles the Capital Beltway. Joseph Spence, area director at the site, said he had not reviewed the list released Wednesday, but the center has 148 buildings on its own demolition list.

That number includes many small structures that could barely be classed as "buildings," he said. He cited as an example greenhouses damaged by a tornado that ripped through the complex a decade ago. The glass that survived the storms was removed long ago, and all that remains are the frames.

"Most of the buildings that we're talking about are uninhabitable, scheduled to be knocked down or blown over in a windstorm," Spence said.



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