- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2010

A conservation group based on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has accused the federal government in a lawsuit of withholding information on how their rural county became the preferred site for a controversial combat training center to be funded in part with $70 million in stimulus funds.

Filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the lawsuit escalates an increasingly contentious battle between the federal government and local residents over a plan to locate the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) on 2,000 acres of farmland adjacent to a state park.

“They are hiding the decision-making process that has gone into directing FASTC to Ruthsburg and putting citizens at an impossible disadvantage when we try to have input into that process,” said Jay Falstad, spokesman for the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association, which filed the suit last week.

Authorities say the facility is needed to train security personnel who protect embassies and diplomats in the United States and abroad and would consolidate training functions currently performed at 14 locations. The planned center would include shooting ranges, driving tracks, reproductions of city streets for live-fire simulations and explosives detonations. It would train 10,000 students per year.

Federal officials say the center will bring short-term construction jobs along with 400 permanent jobs to Queen Anne’s County.

However, many residents say the stimulus funds and the jobs come with too big a price tag in a county where unemployment remains lower than the national average. They fear that long after the financial crisis has passed, they will be saddled with a facility that spoils the rural character of the area, strains the local infrastructure and further harms the environment around the Chesapeake Bay.

The State Department and the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government’s real estate arm, hosted several public forums in January and February to provide details of the project to concerned residents. Despite hours of engagement that included town-hall-style meetings, issue-based seminars and field trips to facilities with similar missions, many residents were dissatisfied when some questions remained unanswered.

For example, government officials have declined to answer questions about how the Ruthsburg site compared to four other finalist sites, two in Virginia and two in West Virginia, from about 30 solicitations. While offering criteria about what went into the decision-making process, such as distance from Washington and the condition of surrounding infrastructure, officials have said the procurement process prevents them from disclosing more specific details.

In January, the conservation group filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the State Department and GSA seeking materials detailing the site-selection process, information about activities that would be conducted at the training center and conclusions about the project’s environmental impact.

The group says in its lawsuit that it sought the information to reach an informed conclusion during a period in which federal officials solicited public comment on the project.

It accused the State Department of stonewalling, saying in its lawsuit that the agency “did not commit to providing the records by a certain date” and that more than 100 days after the request was filed, the agency “has still not provided a single record.”

GSA in its response to the information request pointed out that some of the information the group sought had been made public but that the bulk of the request was for “protected pre-decisional documents,” whose release would “compromise the integrity of GSA’s internal decision making process.”

State Department and GSA officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The public comment period has expired, and federal officials are awaiting the results of an environmental assessment to determine if the project will go forward or a more rigorous environmental impact study will be conducted. The results of the environmental assessment are expected this month.