Why, in 10 years, hasn't the county been able to find a buyer for land at the old U.S. Army Depot in Glen Burnie, where it now wants to build a detention center?

North County politicians and the citizensthey represent want time to answer that question -- and many others -- before the county commits itself to the $80 million, 650-bed facility proposed by County Executive Robert R. Neall.

"We want to delay action," said state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Brooklyn Park. "It may be the right site, but there's a lot of

unanswered questions."

Jimeno and the rest of the District 31 delegation are scheduled to speak before the County Council tonight, when the senator says they will discourage the council from adopting a resolution supporting the detention center on New Ordnance Road, just south of the Baltimore Beltway.

Instead, the delegation will call for the county to reopen the site selection process.

North County residents say they, too, are prepared to deluge the council with opposition.

"This isn't just some little county jail they're talking about,"said Rick Bittner, outgoing president of the Greater Brooklyn Park Council, an umbrella association representing 14 community groups.

Detention centers are seldom welcome in any community, but Bittner denies that residents are mouthing typical "not in my backyard" sentiments. "This is no knee-jerk reaction. We have serious, well-founded questions."

Foremost among their concerns is the issue of whether any hazardous wastesare buried at the old 86-acre depot, and if so, whether disturbing them could pose a threat to nearby neighborhoods.

"As we understand it from area residents, (the Army) was storing chemicals there of one kind or another for 50 years. Nobody knows what's there," Bittner said.

"There's always been an environmental question," Jimeno noted.

An environmental report on the property, prepared by a Gaithersburg consultant, was sent to the county late last week and will be released today, said Walter Chitwood, Neall's assistantchief administrative officer.

"I have been told the report has nosignificant environmental findings," Chitwood said Friday.

In a Jan. 24 memo, former Director of Economic Development Sam Minnitte wrote that the "uncertainty of any costs associated with the cleanup of the site, if in fact cleanup is required" was a major obstacle in selling the property.

Other problems included the cost of servicing the property with water, sewer, off-site road improvements and other land development requirements; and the availability of developed property in the area near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Minnitte wrote.

Among the firms that unsuccessfully negotiated with the county:

* Dickinson-Heffner Associates Inc., which wanted to develop the entire 86 acres as an expansion of the its Baymeadow Industrial Park, adjacent to the depot.

* Coca-Cola Enterprises, which wanted 30 acres for a plant that would have employed 100.

* Baltimore Gas and Electric, which was seeking a site for a research and development facility.

North County residents suspect that the land has become a white elephant and Neall wants to put a jail there because there is nothing else useful he can do with the site. The zoning is inplace for a government-operated jail.

Chitwood denied the land has become a burden, noting that it costs little to maintain it.

"I think at some point in time the property might be marketable for economic purposes," he said. "It depends on the state of the U.S. economy."

The depot was recommended as a jail site by John E. Harms Jr. and Associates of Pasadena, the engineering firm that did the land development analysis of 37 potential jail locations. That list was narrowed to three sites; the depot was the only one owned by the county.

Another consultant, Carter Goble and Associates of Washington, had recommended earlier that the county either expand the jail or build anew one to house 1,170 prisoners expected by the end of the decade. Neall opted to build a new jail rather than expand the 25-year-old Annapolis building because the consultant estimated that expansion could cost $115 million.

Neall is asking the General Assembly for halfof the money needed to build the jail. This year, he is asking for $1.25 million toward the design, with the county paying another $1.25 million.

State lawmakers are unlikely to commit any money toward the project unless the County Council passes the resolution approving the site, Jimeno said. There is no point in the state providing design money if the council is not willing to allocate money for the jail in its capital program, he said.

Even if the design money is approved this session, there is no guarantee that the state will pay for half of the project, Jimeno said.

"If the state runs out of money, the county could be stuck for the whole thing," he said.

Councilman George Bachman, D-Linthicum, said he will vote against the resolution.

Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, D-Severn, wants another publichearing, held in North Arundel, after Neall's staffers have made their presentation.

"I don't want people to feel like we have been railroaded, where we have a news release that comes out in the paper and two weeks later we pass a resolution and it's a done deal," he said.

Like other North County politicians and residents, Middlebrooks complained that Neall sprung the jail plan on them.

"It bothers methat I had to find out about it by calls from reporters," he said. "It was like a time bomb being dropped on you."

Other concerns about the proposed detention center include the threat of escape and the hazard and expense associated with transporting prisoners.

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