Cardin revives his push to close Oak Hill

The Baltimore Sun

With a higher-ranking post in Congress and the support of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin reintroduced legislation yesterday to close the Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel.

Under the legislation, Anne Arundel County and the National Security Agency would split the 900-acre parcel adjacent to Fort Meade and controlled by the District of Columbia. Land on the northern side of the Little Patuxent River would be used as a security buffer abutting the Army post, and the southern side would be designated mostly for parkland.

Provisions would discourage the county from developing more than 25 percent of its share, or roughly 100 acres.

Cardin sponsored similar legislation in 2004 and 2005 as a congressman representing the 3rd Congressional District. Then-Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes filed a companion bill in 2005, but those measures stalled in the face of opposition from then-Washington Mayor Anthony Williams.

Anne Arundel leaders, however, believe the political environmental is as favorable as it has ever been to shut down Oak Hill. Washington's new mayor, Adrian Fenty, supported the closure of the juvenile detention center as a councilman. Cardin, Maryland's biggest proponent to relocate the facility, is in higher office, and Sarbanes' son, John, now holds the 3rd District House seat.

Also, the impending military expansion at Fort Meade - an estimated 12,000 jobs over the next four years - is creating demand for more office space for defense contractors and affordable housing, and the county has wanted to establish a regional park on its western boundary.

"It's the right time to do it," said County Councilman G. James "Jamie" Benoit, a Democrat who represents Laurel.

Nearby residents and Maryland legislators have fought for more than two decades to close the embattled facility situated across a state highway from the NSA. Oak Hill, which houses about 60 juveniles, has been burdened by management woes, crowding, escapes, drug use and abuse.

In 2004, Fenty was among 12 Washington council members to vote to close Oak Hill.

"This is what I will fund - an aggressive exit plan from Oak Hill," Fenty said, according to the Associated Press at the time. He has called the facility "outdated and decrepit." But Williams opposed that move.

"He's clearly supportive of a new look at the property," said County Executive John R. Leopold, who will meet with Fenty next Friday at Oak Hill to discuss the future of the detention center. "Based on his public pronouncements, I am looking forward to working with him to do business together."

Through a spokeswoman, Fenty said he also wants to meet with the senators to discuss their ideas.

"We certainly want to find a solution that balances all the competing priorities," Fenty said in an e-mail statement.

In a news release, Cardin called the facilities at Oak Hill "a disgrace" and said a new detention center in Washington would allow juveniles to be closer to their families.

"It's a formula that works for everyone involved," said Cardin's spokeswoman, Susan Sullam.

A call to Mikulski's spokeswoman was not returned.

Washington juvenile officials have said that Oak Hill's location provides juveniles a sanctuary away from the city. Another sticking point has been trying to find a suitable replacement site within the District.

Sullam said "the burden is on the D.C. government at this point to figure out the best location."

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