The boot camp in the backyard D.C. slowly learning how to sell sensitive programs to the county.


CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES surrounding last week's opening of a D.C.-run boot camp for youths on federal land in West County show D.C. officials slowly learning the lesson that local leaders and residents need to be included before such sensitive programs are moved to their backyard. Certain other circumstances show the District still tends to treat such federal properties as though they exist in a vacuum.

For years, the U.S. government ignored the concerns of West County residents, plopping D.C. youth jails there without telling them a thing. Several years ago, months went by before people learned a building they believed to be vacant had been reopened as a home for delinquents; they learned, not from D.C. officials, but from a community activist who had taken a walk near the facility. When escapes occurred, local law enforcements often were not notified. No wonder residents rebelled, forcing one youth facility to close in 1993.

The lack of citizen opposition to last week's opening of the D.C. Superior Court's Urban Services Program at Forest Haven signified a sea change in relations between the community and the district. Residents are downright friendly to this boot camp. Why? Because for once D.C. officials bothered to inform them and enlist their support. They responded to residents' concerns about escapees, installing warning sirens and working with local authorities on a plan to capture fugitives.

Unfortunately, D.C.'s new spirit of cooperation only extended so far. Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary says he wasn't told of the program's starting date or asked to attend the open house at Forest Haven last week. D.C. officials never settled a zoning dispute -- there's a question about whether the federal government is exempt from county zoning laws prohibiting boot camps on this site -- before opening the facility. A draft of the agreement for handling escapes still hadn't been signed as of last week.

No law or regulation requires District officials to do any of this. But fairness to the residents, not to mention the success of their own programs, demands that they keep cooperating rather than exploit their ability to do pretty much whatever they want on federal properties leased to them.

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