BG Fort Ritchie Protest

Residents of the former Fort Ritchie base protest outside the main gate to the community on Sunday.

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.

Follow Jennifer Skinner on Twitter: @jskinnerwvu.

(11) comments

cldeboin

As I read this it sort of has smacks of something Donald Trump would try and do: although he isn't a "foreign investor",... or is he ???

sue1955

Mr. Trump does not believe in foreigners buying land in the U.S. He stated that on "The Tonight Show" several years ago.

DickD

The property is being transferred, but why are the people being forced to move? Can't they just sign new leases and continue to live there? The buildings exist, they are livable.

Dwasserba

They are starting to fail and don't belong to their occupants. They have no insulation and bad windows while the owner is paying for utilities. This was a short term solution to the alternative of vacant deteriorating buildings.

motherofmandm

Actually if you do your research the people that have been up here since COPT were involved lived in very nice town-homes. They were made to move into the army barrack housing which sat vacant for a long time and the nice beautiful town-homes were tore down. Why? Because they were not stone or brick. So of no fault of their own, accept for living here, they were put into the old army barrack housing. Now, I live in one of the units up here. I have no leaking windows and my place is nice, old- but nice. I feel very comfortable here with my two kids. I am the sole parent of two 13 year old kids. I do not want to move out of the school district they have known since they started pre-k. I very much have ties to the community and my community supports me and my children more than you can ever imagine. I depend on my friends to help out when I cannot be at two places at the same time. Unless you have been up here recently and have been in one of the units you cannot just repeat the paper. Yes there are some units that do not have tenants, but there are 90 that do. While I understand we rent and I understand are leases are for 6 months, I do not understand why we have been treated like we do not matter by the county we work for, live in and pay taxes to. That was really the main problem here. It was not a developer who bought the property and has now taken ownership. The ownership is being transferred to the county we reside in. So that is why we are so upset. And to not have the common decency to notify its residents before we have to hear it from the paper. Pen Mar was tasked with doing something will this property and they did nothing. They let the buildings go into ruins. Amazing how Pen Mar is operating at a loss but can afford to pay the Community center 170,000 a year to stay afloat. Also the county is going to continue that for another 3 years after they take over. Do you think the couple that just moved up here and signed a lease in June was told that any day they could be asked to move again? I think not. We are not opposed to them doing something up here, but there is 590 acres to develop, why do we have to go now? Also, the proposal that was printed in the news paper has a hotel and conference center on it. The parade field turned into a baseball field and more. I feel like the development needs to fit the area. Why did they not ever build housing. They could have built town homes where the other ones where and rented those. I am sure people would have moved here. At this point in time the county would be doing a great service if they were more transparent about what they are going to be doing up here. And if you have foreign investors coming to build international school or pharmaceutical company how many jobs do you think are actually going to be offered to locals. And once they develop the area do you think the Cascade residents across from Fort Ritchie are not going to be affected.

sue1955

It is possible that the new owner/developer wants renters off the property because there is no business that is going to carry out the duties of paying the utilities as well as maintenance in the buildings and the outside. In other words, the new owners are not willing to assume the duties of property management.

I realize that you are trying to use logic to be able to accept what is going to happen, but I doubt that anything is going to happen to save the housing for you renters. The laws are going to give precedence to the possibility of house owners. All the new owners have to do is provide a specific number of days notice to current renters.

I really sympathize with your situation, including the upheaval of the children, not to mention the cost of moving, new security deposit (unless you come upon a special move-in deal). I wish everybody the best.

Come to think of it; in the previous article (yesterday), it was stated that residents are not having to pay rent for the last two months' of their tenancy. That will help a little bit toward moving.

jerseygrl42

Its all about the money as always and wonder why they are looking for a foreign entity to own it.....very strange...

elymus43

Let Fort Ritchie be the nice community it is now. The people of Washington County should not let the builders get a foot hold in the county. It could look like Frederick County in the future???

jerseygrl42

Get Matan in there and he will build those cell block apartments that have destroyed the appearance in Urbana and blocked the views of Sugarloaf...but he will make lots of money and thats all that counts apparently

Dwasserba

Frederick County actually has good word of mouth, they should be so lucky.

mynameismiller

You neglected to mention the litigation that held up COPT's redevelopment plans for the property. They were quite extensive and promised to revitalize the surrounding area. How will a "foreign investor" or Washington County avoid the same bottlenecks. Seems like a lost cause for this community that doesn't seem to want to grow.

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