It’s the end of an era for 88 families living on the U.S. Army’s former installation in the mountains that border Frederick and Washington counties. The land that was once part of Fort Ritchie is being transfered to Washington County for a new housing development, and current residents have to move out when their leases expire, most within six months.
The residents of Fort Ritchie, who rent houses on the former Army base, were caught off guard on July 12 when the Board of County Commissioners of Washington County voted unanimously to approve a memorandum that stated the county would take ownership of Fort Ritchie on Sept. 15 from the current property owner, PenMar Development Corp.
The commissioners’ meeting was the first public announcement of the redevelopment plan.
Residents of Fort Ritchie, which is in Cascade, in northeast Washington County along the Pennsylvania and Frederick County borders, were surprised by the sudden notice their leases would end.
“Everyone’s frantically packing, and doing what they can with petitions,” Fort Ritchie resident Greg Lee said.
Lee has lived with his fiancé, his disabled father and his 4-year-old daughter in Fort Ritchie for three and a half years. He and other residents of the former military base discovered on July 12 that the existing buildings at Fort Ritchie will be torn down to make room for a new mixed-use development called Cascade Town Centre, including housing that will add up to 3,000 residents to Cascade.
Fort Ritchie was an Army post until it closed in 1998. PenMar Development Corp. was established to oversee the civilian development and revitalization of the former base.
Fort Ritchie is now home to small commercial and retail buildings, a community center, a groundwater system and 97 residential units rented by the 88 families.
Rental townhouses and duplexes came with six-month leases that include water, sewer and electricity, a good deal for residents.
PenMar mailed letters to Fort Ritchie residents on July 12 after the county unveiled the plan to the public, Executive Director Doris Nipps said. The letters were not eviction notices, but informed residents that their leases would not be renewed after expiration.
“I understand that they don’t like leaving, but they have been on short-term leases. The property has been on sale for four years,” Nipps said. “It was a given, and widely known that if development comes, as it should, change happens.”
The county and PenMar are extending some leases for six months. After the county takes over the property, residents will receive their security deposits back and free rent for the last two months. Residents can also leave before their leases expire without penalty.
The property will be completely vacated by July 1, 2017.
According to Washington County Administrator Greg Murray, the county has talked to foreign investors, including companies from South Korea, since last October.
Nipps said PenMar has negotiated with the county for “several months.”
Residents are questioning why the county did not reveal the plan until after the July 12 board meeting.
After he found out about the redevelopment through an article in The Herald-Mail, Cascade resident Lev Ellian created a “Save Fort Ritchie” page on Facebook.
Ellian said he lives in Cascade for the “peace, quiet, serenity of the mountain.” He is worried that Washington County emergency responders will not have resources or funding to serve a larger, more developed Cascade.
He referred to “overdevelopment” of Cascade as something usually only seen in Montgomery County or lower Frederick County.
Nipps, of PenMar, countered that “overdevelopment” is not the right word to use, though, because the Army base at one time was home to 2,000 jobs.
“It’s bringing back jobs. Some people have lost homes and their businesses,” Nipps said. “This is the opportunity for the community to get folks back here and jobs back here. Without it, Cascade suffers.”
Residents describe Cascade as a small, rural, mountain community surrounded by small towns in Frederick County and Pennsylvania. Its population was a little more than 1,100 in 2010.
“[The redevelopment] is going to affect everybody, the roads, the businesses that have been around for 30 to 40 years,” Lee said. “It’s going to triple the population of the [community].”
Redevelopment has been in the works since the Army base closed, according to Murray.
“These have been short-term leases for quite some time. There’s no surprise that the fort would be redeveloped,” he said. “It was never meant to sustain that housing for long term because it’s in disrepair.”
The current housing was built in the early 1970s and has problems — no insulation, roofs past warranty, leaky windows — that would need to be addressed if the buildings remained, according to Nipps.
Many residents of Fort Ritchie live on fixed incomes. Proposed housing would mainly be to buy, not rent.
“Right now, the base is essentially dead,” Murray said. “The goal is redevelopment of the base. That’s been the goal ever since the base closed.”
The county will maintain ownership of the roads, sewer and water service, electric service, the Parade Field, Lake Wastler, Lake Royer, planned athletic fields and undeveloped parcels of land, according to Nipps.
The county hopes to see Cascade become a “vibrant part of Washington County” and add to the county’s tax base, Murray said.
Cascade resident Sterling Sanders helped organize a protest on Sunday against the county’s plan for redevelopment. He said Cascade residents are “fearful.”
“Washington County and PenMar Development have not explained anything, and what they have explained just caused a lot of confusion,” he said. “Just a month ago, people were signing six-month leases with PenMar Development. What the community wants is for the county to explain.”
One of Lee’s biggest concerns about the redevelopment is the impact on school children.
Fort Ritchie kids go to Cascade Elementary School, which in 2015 had fewer than 200 enrolled students, according to Washington County Public Schools.
“This is happening a month after school starts,” Lee said. “If 50 kids have to move in September, how much time are they going to miss from school?”
Murray is not worried about the school because it was built to handle the base at full population. “A decrease [in enrollment] may happen [at first], but it will not be significant,” said Murray, adding that the Washington County Board of Education is “on board.”
Another concern of residents is the preservation of American history at Fort Ritchie.
“We have veterans who live in Fort Ritchie. We have sands from Normandy Beach at a memorial site. There’s immense American history,” Ellian said.
Murray said historic preservation is one of the county’s top concerns, too. Fort Ritchie is designated as a historic district. “The history of Fort Ritchie is ultimately the history of Washington County,” Murray said. “That’s something that’s being preserved and well thought out.”
Ellian, Sanders and others gathered signatures on a petition.
“The negative impact that this plan will have on our communities greatly outweighs the objective of creating tax revenues and foreign investment,” the petition writes.
The petition asks for the county to suspend the plan until county officials meet with Fort Ritchie residents and surrounding community members in a public forum.
As of Tuesday, the petition had 168 signatures.
Lee said he understands the county trying to use the property, but he expected redevelopment around the existing, occupied homes.
“Most agree that there could be good use of the land, but to evict all the people who are living there? It’s a real sad story,” he said.
Lee is one of the luckier ones, he said, because he was already moving into a new home. Others, like Angela Cool, are concerned they will not find somewhere affordable to live.
“We have to be out when our lease is out in December,” she said.
The mother of two toddlers had no clue where she was going to live after her lease runs out on Dec. 31. She was not expecting to be thinking about finding a new school system or redirecting her mail anytime soon, she said.
“We have it so easy here. My rent is $760 for two bedrooms, free water, free electricity, full gas heat and hot water. We don’t even have to mow the grass,” Cool said. “Now, I have to buy a lawnmower. Now, I have to pay for utilities, which I probably will not be able to afford on top of paying for moving trucks and packing materials, and I have to keep my rent up.”
“It’s very depressing,” she said.