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St. Mary's Defends Lifeblood

County Targets Homes in Patuxent Base's Way

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2004; Page B01

Every so often, up above the crumbling houses tangled in ivy and weeds, a Navy jet screams through the sky. The jets sound low enough to land on one of the flat roofs of the hundreds of apartments in Lexington Manor, but most people don't even look up: It's just part of life here.

Patuxent River Naval Air Station, just across the road, permeates everything here -- not just in this Lexington Park neighborhood with broken windows, rotting doors and jet noise -- but across St. Mary's County.

Vanessa White examines the mildew and water damage on walls of the house in Lexington Park where she has lived for 35 years and which she will probably have to leave. "I'm living on borrowed time here," she said. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

Never is that more clear than when the congressionally mandated base realignment and closure process -- known as BRAC -- looms. Next spring, the secretary of defense will give a list of recommended changes to the president and then Congress.

Business and political leaders in St. Mary's are doing everything they can to keep the base, where the Navy's newest jets are tested, off that list -- including finding a way to wipe out the Lexington Manor apartments, clearing the flight path.

No community wants to lose a military base. Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) formed a commission last summer to find ways to ward off closures. Interstate 64, which leads into the busy Hampton Roads area, was just widened to make it easier to reach the Virginia bases nearby. In Charles County, a community advocacy group hired Washington lobbyists to try to protect the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head, that county's largest employer.

But in isolated St. Mary's, where the traditional livelihoods of farming and crabbing are dying out, the base feels irreplaceable now. The air station, known as Pax in Southern Maryland, and the defense contractors clustered around it bring good jobs, driving more than 80 percent of the county's economy, according to one study.

If Pax shrank or closed -- "Don't even think about it," said Lawrence D. Jarboe, a commissioner in St. Mary's. "It would be a devastating blow."

Jarboe and others have heard the tales from past rounds of base closings -- how communities were caught by surprise when heavy traffic, failing schools or homes sitting under a flight path tipped the scales for shuttering a base.

So last summer, St. Mary's County leaders made a list of seven priorities for improving the region for the military and perhaps inoculating the base against changes. They'll make another this summer, crossing off their progress so far: Roads widened. Schools funded. And now the Lexington Manor redevelopment, a nearly $14 million project to be paid for with county, state and federal money.

The efforts to protect the base touch nearly everyone in the county, as political rivals cooperate, massive projects are funded and decades-old problems are solved. Not only has Pax shaped the culture and the landscape here; over the years, this small corner of the county has drawn in most of the money and power.

Across the street from the base, where rows of houses spray painted "KEEP OUT" slowly decay, there's very little of either.

"I'm living on borrowed time here," said Vanessa White, a Lexington Manor tenant. "We got to go because of the planes."

She's lived for 35 years in this neighborhood, better known as the Flattops for its roofs like the deck of an aircraft carrier. "I've seen it all, sitting right here," she said from her seat looking out over her lawn, with the crape myrtle her parents planted as a seedling now 15 feet tall and bursting with pink flowers.

The Navy built the 342 homes, squat little houses for enlisted men, in 1944, and sold the Flattops to a private company in the 1960s. Over the years, the houses wore out. When Essex South Management LLC bought the 84-acre property in December, it tackled repairs and spent months just hauling tons of trash out, said Tom Watts, the managing partner. "It was dismal," he said.

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