The city of Frederick has stopped moving forward with designs for a road to run through Fort Detrick’s Area B, a 399-acre plot of land used in the mid-20th century as a test site for the Army’s biological warfare program.
Instead, the city is slowly figuring out how to improve the existing Kemp Lane — which winds past the west side of the property — to ease traffic flow in the area, said Tracy Coleman, Frederick’s deputy director of public works.
The city has envisioned building a loop road around Frederick since at least the 1970s, Coleman said. With Monocacy Boulevard on the southern and eastern edges of the city, and Christopher’s Crossing on the northern and western sides, the “mini beltway” would relieve congestion on U.S. 15 and other roads.
In an interview at her office on Wednesday, Coleman offered clarity on the city’s plans for the project, which has for years been a source of passionate debate among community and environmental advocates.
Because of how the Army disposed of hazardous waste on Area B while the site was used to test biological warfare materials, the land’s groundwater is contaminated. For decades, the Army has studied the extent of the contamination and has tried to figure out how to address it.
In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named Area B’s groundwater to its National Priorities List, grouping it with other Superfund sites around the country that are contaminated from having hazardous waste dumped, left in the open or otherwise improperly managed.
Community advocates worry that building a road through Area B would endanger the health and safety of workers and residents, and disrupt the progress of clean-up activities. Their activism during the 2020 Comprehensive Plan update process pushed the city to switch its focus to improving Kemp Lane, Coleman said.
Still, she said, some community members wish the language added to the plan — which the city approved in April 2021 — would have more strongly opposed the construction of a road through Area B.
Betty Law is among that group. She’s a member of the Restoration Advisory Board, the committee the Army created to keep civilians apprised of clean-up activities on Area B.
Although Law said she trusts Alderwomen Donna Kuzemchak, D, and Katie Nash, D, to continue opposing the road, she said she wants Mayor Michael O’Connor, D, to definitively say the city has shifted its focus away from the project.
“Then everybody could relax and say, ‘OK, fine,’” Law said. “‘Maybe you won’t get to it for five to 10 years, but we know that this hazard has been dismissed.’”
In an email to The Frederick News-Post on Thursday, O’Connor confirmed there is no action being taken to design a road through Area B. He has no intention of directing city employees to deviate from the current plan, he wrote.
City officials haven’t entirely thrown out the idea of extending Christopher’s Crossing through Area B to complete the loop road, but it would take “a lot” for them to reactivate the design process for that pathway, Coleman said.
So long as the Area B groundwater is considered a Superfund site and is contaminated, the city will not attempt to design a byway through the property, she said.
“The city wants to do the right thing. We really do,” she said. “We want to build a safe roadway, and we want to do it so that we help — however it is we can help — and certainly not hinder the clean-up of the Superfund site.”
History of the project
The city’s plans for a loop road have evolved.
A planning document from 1978 shows a road cutting through Area B. But by 2004, the city’s Comprehensive Plan depicted a conceptual drawing of Christopher’s Crossing extending along Kemp Lane and passing through other roads, before eventually connecting with Interstate 70 to the south.
To accommodate an increase in traffic from future developments, the city planned to widen Kemp Lane, Coleman said. But when the city returned to the document to update it for 2010, plans changed again.
Planners figured that running Christopher’s Crossing through Area B could create a safer thruway with more gentle curves than Kemp Lane, Coleman said. Doing so would also provide a fairly direct path to U.S. 40.
In 2009, Jeff Holtzinger, mayor of Frederick at the time, met with the garrison commander for Fort Detrick. Together, they drew up a nonbinding agreement that the city and military base would cooperate to determine whether building a road through the site was feasible.
The document did not obligate the Army to grant the city a right-of-way to Area B, and it did not obligate the city to build a road through the site, Coleman said.
Since Fort Detrick’s agreement with the city, the Army and the EPA have learned a lot about Area B, including that the contaminated groundwater extends beyond the boundaries of the former test site.
For this reason, according to language added to the most recently updated Comprehensive Plan — lobbied for by RAB members and community advocates — the city is looking beyond building a road through Area B.
Plans for the road never got far, Coleman said. Proposed pathways sketched out in the city’s Comprehensive Plan are preliminary and can change easily, depending on the land’s geographic features and how the city’s borders change, she said.
“Quite frankly, it’s a little better than a crayon on a map,” she said.
Although the city entered into a contract with Fox and Associates in 2014 to design a path for Christopher’s Crossing through Area B, drawings of the road remained extremely basic.
Last year, the city directed the company to focus its attention instead on improving Kemp Lane, Coleman said.
It’s going to take a long time — and many approvals, permits and public meetings — until the city can “turn one shovel of dirt” on the project, Coleman said.
A timeline of five years would be optimistic. Ten years would be more likely.
“That length of time is the thing that I’d like people to understand,” Coleman said. “We’re nowhere near building a road.”
Why would anyone buy a home in this area and it should be revealed by the seller. If not there will be law suits and costly for builders.
Reveal what, Dick? When a property is sold "as is", it is up to the purchaser to do their due diligence. That's what we had to do, at our expense, for our place.
They already built in the cancer area with new houses in the footprint of the contaminated aquifer. Just put the road through and clean up what’s found and the blacktop will seal over it from then on.
Bravo sir! People always complain about traffic; the least point of friction moves traffic most efficiently, and that is the straight shot through Area B.
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