Open space urged at site

The Baltimore Sun

Within a day of the introduction of congressional legislation to close the crumbling Oak Hill Youth Center near Fort Meade, key Anne Arundel County officials are calling for using half of the valuable property as a West County regional park.

County Executive John R. Leopold said he also supports some form of development component on the nearly 900 acres controlled by the District of Columbia.

"A regional park would be a positive and attractive use of the property," said Leopold, who took steps last month to capture two other large parcels of open space for parkland,

He said that would be "the lion's share of that property, leaving open the option over a small portion for other uses."

The bill introduced by Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, would force the embattled juvenile detention center to be relocated to Washington and allow the National Security Agency and Anne Arundel County to effectively split the largely pristine property that abuts Fort Meade.

Oak Hill, which houses about 60 juveniles, has been burdened by management problems, crowding, escapes, drug use and abuse.

Built in 1967, Oak Hill's suburban location came out of a 1929 land grant from the federal government to the District of Columbia.

Civic leaders, lawmakers and developers have said that Oak Hill's open spaces and strategic setting next to the NSA make it ideal for a regional park, a development of offices and homes, and a security buffer for the super-secret surveillance spy agency.

"All those involved recognize the urgency of this situation," said Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat who represents Oak Hill.

Sarbanes is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over legislation involving the District of Columbia.

West County residents have also said that as Fort Meade's expansion brings thousands of high-paying jobs to the area, the property could provide a home for county services, retailers, affordable housing and office space for defense contractors.

"It's probably the best piece of land going," Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association, said. "It's the premier piece of property in town."

The federal legislation, first introduced in 2004 and again in 2005, discourages the county from developing 25 percent - about 100 acres - or more of its share for anything but parkland. If the county reached the 25 percent threshold, Anne Arundel would be forced to divert the "proceeds of the development" from that point to the District to go toward construction of a new juvenile detention center in Washington, Susan Sullam, Cardin's spokeswoman, said last week.

"The goal to have this 25 percent provision is to encourage to put in the majority of the land for open space," Sullam said.

County Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat who represents the area, said that if the county does take possession of half of Oak Hill, south of the Little Patuxent River, he would propose legislation to further cap how much land could be developed.

The underlying zoning would allow for one home an acre, county officials said.

"I'm going to be fighting to reduce that number as much as I can," said Benoit, who said he's open to the idea of placing county administrative buildings and a senior center there. He is skeptical about allowing construction of affordably priced housing.

Benoit said he prefers to direct most new growth to Odenton, where there are plans for a 1,600-acre town center, and will oppose a proliferation of building at Oak Hill.

"I am confident that my colleagues on the council share my concerns about growth in West County," Benoit said.

Leopold said he's addressing those concerns having submitted a bid to the Navy last month to take over the 857-acre former Naval Academy Dairy Farm in Gambrills, with the intention of preserving it as an organic farm, community gardens and learning center.

On March 21, state leaders agreed to turn over 547 acres on the shuttered Crownsville Hospital Center to the county, which plans to use it as parkland with hiking trails.

Leopold said he would defer to the residents in Maryland City and Russett, and other communities surrounding Oak Hill about what they want for the property.

"If they want open space, or a combination of open space and convenient services, I will listen to the community," he said.

State Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents the area, said, "There will be plenty of time to figure out what to do with the land."

County officials said that any rezoning for Oak Hill would occur during the review of Anne Arundel's growth blueprint, known as the General Development Plan. But Leopold and other county officials emphasized that gaining control of the Oak Hill land is a long way off.

The county executive is meeting Friday with Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who as a D.C. councilman supported the closure of the juvenile detention center.

Fenty, who took office in January, also is expected to talk with Cardin and Mikulski on the topic. A key issue involves finding a suitable place in Washington to accommodate a juvenile detention center.

Rosapepe expressed confidence that Cardin and Sarbanes can make progress in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

"If we all stand behind them, I think we can get this thing done," Rosapepe said.

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