Months after Maryland leaders failed to strike a deal to close the Oak Hill juvenile detention center in Laurel, the District of Columbia has quietly moved ahead with building a $42 million replacement facility on the same property.
The start on construction of a five-building campus for 60 juveniles comes as a surprise to area politicians and community leaders, who for decades have called for Washington officials to move the facility out of Anne Arundel County and back to the city.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a longtime proponent of closing Oak Hill, said yesterday he will still seek to force out the center.
"I still expect that there will be congressional action," said Cardin, a Democrat. "I'm still going to try to have this facility located elsewhere."
Cardin has sought to split the 888-acre tract adjacent to Fort Meade between the county and the National Security Agency, for use as parkland and a security buffer. The NSA is on the southwest corner of Fort Meade, a few hundred yards from Oak Hill.
District officials have been under growing pressure to build a new center, as they seek to comply with a consent decree to close Oak Hill by next year.
Cardin said the start of building does not affect the deal struck with Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, that would set aside 40 acres for the new detention center and split the rest between the county and NSA.
The senator was among several lawmakers who said yesterday they were unaware that construction on at least three buildings had begun on the secured, wooded tract. Cardin said the action "lacks the basic courtesy you would expect as a member of Congress."
Reggie Sanders, a spokesman for the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, said yesterday that construction started in September, but construction signs went up only in the past few days. The project is expected to be finished by next January.
In April, District officials announced plans for the new detention center. Days later, Cardin sought leverage over Washington officials by placing a hold in the Senate on a key initiative of Fenty's administration. Cardin relinquished the hold after a few days, reaching a deal with Washington officials that would allow the city to move ahead with building a replacement while not barring the senator from trying to close the center altogether.
Yesterday, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, called the start of construction "unwelcome news but ... not surprising news."
Some community leaders said they were fed up with the lack of progress by lawmakers.
"It's too late to do anything," said Ray Szyperski, vice president of the Maryland City Civic Association, who saw the construction site in December.
Others said they were not surprised by the outcome.
Claire Louder, executive director of the West County Chamber of Commerce, which represents western Anne Arundel, said that Cardin "warned us in spring it would be a uphill battle."
Attempts to reach Fenty were unsuccessful.
Built in 1967, on the site of a 1929 land grant from the federal government to Washington, Oak Hill has housed as many as 240 juveniles - and in recent years was burdened by management problems, drug use, crowding and escapes. It is also viewed as a prime spot for future development.
John C. Stamato, an Annapolis developer, said the news does not change his plans for a $500 million project of homes and a town center across Route 198 from Oak Hill. "None of us assumed it would go away," Stamato said.
Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.