Monday, March 29, 2010

RUTHSBURG, Md. | They had the pig balloons flown in overnight from Massachusetts.

Twelve of them. Pink; made of mylar and filled with helium. They loomed over the casually clad crowd that had gathered in the hundreds last month to hear crisply tailored federal officials try for the third time to justify the proposed construction of a security training center sprawled across 2,000 acres of local farmland.

The pigs were a reminder that many in this rural community - and virtually everyone gathered in the high school auditorium that night - viewed the federal project as wasteful. Take the $70 million in stimulus funds and the promises of hundreds of new jobs somewhere else, they said.

For more than three hours, officials from the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the General Services Administration patiently answered questions and withstood scathing comments that revealed an opposition and distrust rivaling the most confrontational displays in last year’s health care town-hall summits.

When it was over, few opinions had been swayed.

Now, after the end of a public comment period that has been extended twice, residents are awaiting the results of an environmental assessment to judge whether the planned center - which includes shooting ranges, driving tracks, reproductions of city streets for live-fire simulations and explosives detonations that would train 10,000 students per year - is an appropriate fit for this bucolic Eastern Shore community.

Federal officials say the center will bring short-term construction jobs along with 400 permanent jobs to Queen Anne’s County, which in January recorded an 8.4 percent unemployment rate - slightly more than the state’s 8.3 percent rate but lower than last month’s national rate of 9.7 percent.

They promised the campus would be a good neighbor and pledged to mitigate traffic and noise problems.

But many residents say the stimulus funds and the jobs come with too big a price tag. 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.

And many are just distrustful of promises made by the federal government.

Regardless of the decision, opponents say, the process by which officials chose to locate this facility has been a model for how the federal government brought millions of dollars in job-creation funds yet alienated a community it was nominally intending to help.

“We have been treated by the GSA and the State Department as if we’re a bunch of backwood hicks who don’t know what’s good for us,” said Centreville resident Sveinn Storm, a local activist who has taken a prominent role in opposing the center.

“In reality, we are mainstream America. We’re angry about wasteful projects that are going to ensure that our children and grandchildren won’t be able to climb out of the pit of debt that projects like this are digging for them. We are absolutely livid at the treatment that we’ve received.”

State Department officials say the consolidated facility is needed to train security personnel who protect embassies and diplomats in the United States and abroad. A 2007 report from State’s Office of Inspector General criticized the inefficiencies in shuttling trainees among 14 facilities in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

“The State Department’s training program is vital to the security of U.S. government personnel and their families,” said Jeffrey Culver, director of the department’s Diplomatic Security Service. “Without this consolidation plan, [diplomatic security] training programs will continue to be hampered by facilities shortcomings.”

Congress made available about $18 million for the project in fiscal 2009, but it was not until $70 million in federal stimulus funds were secured last year that the State Department and GSA, the federal government’s real estate arm, began searching for a site.

Almost immediately, the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center drew the attention of skeptical House Republican leaders, who included it on a list of wasteful projects released in February 2009. Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, decried the project as “pork” during a speech on the Senate floor.

Four months later, the Federal Procurement Office issued a public solicitation for at least 1,250 acres of land within 150 miles of the U.S. Capitol. State Department officials say the distance was calculated as the maximum commute students could reasonably be required to travel by car from Washington in one day.

State Department reports that track the use of stimulus funds say government officials received more than 30 expressions of interest from landowners. From July to September, GSA officials narrowed the list to five finalists - one in Maryland, two in West Virginia and two in Virginia.

The Maryland site was the Ashley Hunt-Ray farm in Queen Anne’s County, a 1,500-acre parcel bordered mostly by horse farms and a state park. It had been on the market for $20 million. A convoy of federal architects, environmental engineers and bureaucrats descended on the farm on Sept. 1 to meet with its owners and county staff.

Two days later, Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., a freshman Democrat who represents the area where the facility would be built and holds what is widely considered to be one of the most vulnerable seats in the country, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and GSA Administrator Paul Prouty making the case for the Eastern Shore location and citing local support for the project.

Not to be outdone, on Sept. 15, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrats, said in letters to the State Department and GSA that the state and local community “heartily endorse” the project. Ms. Mikulski, Mr. Cardin and Mr. Kratovil all piled in with a Nov. 30 press release calling the Ashley Hunt-Ray farm and an available adjoining property the “preferred location” for the security facility and the 400 permanent jobs it would bring.

“The training facility is good news for three reasons: jobs, jobs and more jobs for Maryland,” Ms. Mikulski said at the time.

But no one asked the constituents who live nearby what they thought.

Although the farm has not been sold, federal officials have begun an environmental assessment required under the National Environmental Policy Act to determine the feasibility of acquiring the site. Because it would be a private real estate transaction between the landowners and the federal government, the county’s five elected commissioners and the public have little say in the final decision despite the effects some fear it will have on their community.

Complaints range from concerns that the facility would overwhelm country roads or create too much noise to a fear that it would contribute to suburban “sprawl” or drive away game birds from this popular hunting area.

In opposing the project, County Commissioner Eric Wargotz, a Republican who is running for Ms. Mikulski’s Senate seat, said zoning restrictions would limit a private developer to building about 150 to 200 town houses on the site, but the federal government is not bound by similar restrictions.

“This flies in the face of all the efforts this state has made toward smart growth and planning,” he said.

Project planners have told residents that 90 percent of the land will remain open space and that hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs will be planted to reduce the carbon footprint and dampen noise from the facility. But after learning it was the preferred site, local residents said they had heard nothing for weeks from the federal government concerning their many questions.

Those concerns escalated by mid-December, when residents learned through a bid solicitation that some training exercises at the facility would involve explosives. Federal officials have since said their plan for the site includes detonating half-pound charges 493 times per year and 3-pound charges six times per year.

James Schlotzhauer, who trains racehorses at a farm about a half mile from the proposed site, said clients who stable their horses with him have already indicated they would take their business elsewhere if the facility is built.

“They’re talking about all these jobs,” he said. “They will be taking money out of our pockets if people no longer want to train at our farm.”

Kevin Sullivan, an explosives engineer who moved to the area this year to start a horse farm, disputes officials’ conclusions comparing the sound level of gunfire and detonations to an air-powered nail gun, a jackhammer or balloons popping.

“A half a pound explosive does not sound like balloon,” he said. “It’s going to be a real significant impact to my equestrian business. And I moved here for this.”

After lending what Mr. Wargotz described as their “cautious support,” county commissioners voted in late December to withdraw their backing, citing concerns about the activities to be conducted at the site and a lack of communication by federal officials, among other things.

With public sentiment running hot, Ruthsburg’s congressional members are taking a second look, too.

A January public meeting intended to address local concerns ended up prompting an angry letter to GSA acting Administrator Stephen R. Leeds from Ms. Mikulski, who said agency representatives treated her constituents “with a disregard that borders on arrogance.”

“They displayed a shocking, inexcusable and inexplicable lack of preparation, which has resulted in threat of lawsuits, widespread anger and what I fear now is an implacable opposition to the project,” she wrote, adding that the GSA’s inability to answer basic questions gave the appearance of a lack of transparency. “It is hard to imagine how your team could have done a worse job in explaining this important project to the community.”

Mr. Kratovil, who said in January he would withdraw his support for the project if the “local elected officials who initially requested my assistance no longer support the project themselves,” now says he is waiting for the results of the environmental assessment to make an informed decision.

“Let’s allow the process to work,” Mr. Kratovil said in a statement. “Right now, my goal is to get the facts on the table.”

In response to Ms. Mikulski’s letter, the GSA lengthened the project’s public comment period and scheduled additional community forums to address concerns.

By the next round of public meetings in February, public affairs specialists flooded Queen Anne’s County High School, holding court in classrooms where they answered and acknowledged individual questions and concerns. Oversized poster boards with graphics, maps and photographs detailed the project’s environmental, cultural and economic impact.

But at a well-attended public forum held in the school auditorium, it remained clear that the federal officials sent to gain support for the project had lost credibility in the community. Misunderstandings were perceived as broken promises and contradictions were treated as conspiracies.

Facing questions about whether the facility eventually would expand, whether training sessions would be held at night or whether more explosives would be detonated than promised, all the collected federal officials could offer was their word. But they did acknowledge that they could make no guarantee that the promised 400 jobs, many in food service, groundskeeping and maintenance, would go to local residents.

When pressed about why they chose Ruthsburg and how the other sites under consideration compared, State Department and GSA officials refused to share information.

A second meeting in February brought out some project supporters, mostly in the business community and in far fewer numbers than opponents. They say the opposition is not representative of public sentiment in the county and many supporters are too intimidated to attend the public forums.

David Metrinko, chairman of the county’s chamber of commerce, delivered a petition he said contained hundreds of signatures of Queen Anne’s County residents in support of the project. He accused opponents of “bullying” supporters with threats of business boycotts.

“We’ve done our research and homework and we’ve met with the folks from GSA and what we’ve been told we believe is truth,” he said.

The State Department has persisted, with mixed results, in its effort to make the case that the facility will be good for the community. Officials have posted plans, maps and the answers to dozens of frequently asked questions on their Web site.

They have arranged bus tours to military and civilian facilities with similar missions as the proposed training center and staged explosives demonstrations to make their case to skeptical residents, politicians and reporters that the facility will not be as intrusive as they think.

In some cases, the efforts have only provided ammunition to the opponents, who have filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, securing project documents and details. Mr. Storm traveled with a video camera to New Mexico to visit a security training facility with a similar mission to document the town’s disenchantment with the federal facility it invited on the promise of jobs and economic growth. He also ordered the helium-filled pig balloons.

The project, originally slated to begin construction this fall, has fallen behind schedule in part because of the opposition. The results of the environmental assessment, which is expected to be released in May, will determine how much further behind it will fall.

That assessment could return a finding of “no significant impact,” which likely would lead to a government purchase of the farmland and construction. However, if the study determines that a more rigorous environmental impact study be performed, the dispute could continue indefinitely.

The Queen Anne’s Conservation Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have raised concerns, and, in what could be a decisive blow to the training center plans, the Environmental Protection Agency last week suggested that GSA consider an environmental-impact statement - a more thorough and often far lengthier review of a project under consideration.

“EPA believes the project may adversely affect the aquatic and terrestrial environment, including wetlands and, potentially, endangered species,” wrote Jeffrey D. Lapp, associate director of the agency’s Office of Environmental Programs.

The county commissioners also voted this month to ask federal officials for a more thorough environmental review, and they asked Mr. Kratovil, Mr. Cardin and Ms. Mikulski to attend a town-hall meeting to address project concerns.

But the answers may no longer be good enough to convince residents that a promise of jobs in a down economy is worth the trade.

“I think what it comes down to with a number of citizens is can you trust what the federal government is telling you?” Mr. Wargotz said. “I can tell you from my perspective, I don’t trust what the feds are telling us.”

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