State, D.C. reportedly reach deal on Oak Hill

The Baltimore Sun

Officials in Maryland and the District of Columbia have reached an agreement over the troubled Oak Hill Youth Center, congressional aides said yesterday. But details were not final, and Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold said he had not yet agreed to a settlement.

Aides to Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said details of the agreement they had reached with Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty would be announced next week. Neither Cardin, Norton nor Fenty could be reached for comment last night.

Leopold said Norton told him yesterday that she was writing a memorandum of understanding regarding the juvenile detention facility that the district operates on federal land in Laurel. He did not know whether the district would be quitting the 888-acre site, as Maryland officials want, or building a new detention facility there.

Leopold said he wanted to confer with Cardin before agreeing to anything. He planned to speak with the senator Monday. "I believe it's fair to say that all parties are working toward a mutually acceptable agreement, but the details have not yet been agreed to," Leopold said. "I am pleased that we are making progress."

Maryland officials were surprised to learn last month that work was imminent on a new $46 million detention center near the existing facility. Contractors have begun asbestos abatement work on several vacant buildings on the property, and groundbreaking is expected within a few weeks on a juvenile facility scheduled to open next May.

Neighbors have fought for more than two decades to close Oak Hill, adjacent to Fort Meade and across a state highway from the National Security Agency. Home now to about 60 juveniles, the facility has been burdened by abuse, escapes, drug use and crowding.

The effort came to a head this week after Cardin placed a hold on the D.C. schools takeover bill now in the Senate. A major initiative of Fenty's new administration, the takeover plan requires congressional approval. Cardin said earlier yesterday that he supports the plan. But he said he also wants to see progress on Oak Hill.

"This has been going on for years, and we have not had the type of response from the district that we had hoped," Cardin said. "The tragedy, of course, is the children that are there that are in circumstances that are deplorable. They need to be in a new facility, and it should be located much closer to the families."

Later, an aide to Norton, the district's nonvoting delegate to Congress, said that Cardin, Norton and Fenty had reached an agreement "concerning the site on which the Oak Hill youth detention facility is located in Anne Arundel County," and that Cardin had agreed to lift his hold on the schools takeover bill.

Cardin introduced legislation this year to close Oak Hill and divide the land between Anne Arundel County and the National Security Agency. He had sponsored similar bills as a member of the House of Representatives in 2004 and 2005, but they stalled in the face of opposition from then-Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Leopold had said he would designate most of the county's piece for a regional park and possibly a fraction of it for offices, retail and residential development.

Those who back closing the facility believe the political environment has never been so favorable for their cause. Cardin is now in the Senate, and Fenty supported closure as a member of the D.C. city council.

Built in 1967 on land granted to the District of Columbia in 1929, Oak Hill has housed more than 240 juveniles at a time.

A detailed report in March 2004 issued by the Washington Office of the Inspector General detailed problems including fire hazards, drug smuggling, crowding, vandalism, inadequate emergency response systems, poor kitchen sanitation and lax security. More than a dozen detainees have escaped in the past decade.

A D.C. judge issued a consent decree in 1986 requiring the closure of Oak Hill by 2009, a situation that has put pressure on Fenty to build a new center elsewhere.

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