By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; A01
The few hundred residents who live in a bucolic corner of Maryland's Eastern Shore don't object to the 400 jobs that might come from a new State Department facility funded with stimulus money. It's just that they're not really into the noise and commotion that would come from the chases, machine-gun fire and bomb blasts.
The little bombs scheduled to go off nine or 10 times a week in Ruthsburg would be a nuisance, and the bigger ones detonated every few weeks could be more of a headache. But it's the three-pounders that have residents in a panic. They're convinced that it'll amount to mini-earthquakes, shaking pictures off walls and slowly tearing apart a historical landmark -- not to mention scaring the bejesus out of their children, chickens and horses.
"Our house was built in 1850 on a foundation of bricks and mortar," said John Roschy, 69. "How long is it going to take to start crumbling from the concussions from all those explosions?"
About 30 miles east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, down a quiet country road behind some trees a couple hundred yards from Roschy's back door, the State Department is deep into a plan to use $70 million to buy two tracts of farmland and begin building one of the nation's largest and busiest anti-terrorism and security training facilities.
The 2,000-acre site would have a racetrack to teach thousands of diplomats how to evade would-be attackers, firing ranges for target practice for machine-gun-wielding bodyguards and blasting pits to show embassy workers how to sift through rubble for evidence.
"We need to get more people out to high-threat and dangerous places than ever before, and this would help us do that," said Jeffrey W. Culver, director of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, which employs 35,000 people and guards everyone from Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver.
"Quite frankly, currently, it's a nightmare," said Chris DiZebba, a State Department planner, explaining how each year about 10,000 trainees play musical chairs at 19 rented sites from Virginia to California before jetting overseas.
But missteps by federal officials and fierce opposition from a few hundred locals have led to months of delays and left the State Department in damage-control mode to convince neighbors and members of Maryland's congressional delegation that they can build berms and plant trees to muffle the blasts.Window into the stimulus
The conflict over the site helps explain why dozens of stimulus projects totaling billions of dollars remain on drawing boards more than a year after Congress passed the $787 billion plan.
Despite being pitched as shovel-ready, any project like the training facility that requires land-use approvals can quickly end up mired in local zoning, environmental and not-in-my-backyard battles.
In some cases, the deeper level of public scrutiny has also raised questions about why such projects are labeled "stimulus." Community hearings on the State Department project, for instance, have revealed that the bulk of spending would not go to creating jobs but to buying farmland. Remaining funds would pay for limited construction work at the end of the year -- nearly two years after the stimulus package was passed.
The bulk of the major construction work, such as building dormitories and laboratories, is expected to cost hundreds of millions more through 2014 -- and potentially several times the project's initial share of stimulus money -- as well as require future congressional budget approval.
What's more, during local public hearings, officials have acknowledged that they've never done a comprehensive analysis to prove that, while more convenient, a new campus would save taxpayers money in the long run.
"I'll try an analogy, off the cuff: If you own a home or go to a hotel, one is much more expensive," Ellyn Goldkind, a State Department architect, said when asked about cost savings at a town hall with 300 residents last week. When that answer didn't fly, she quickly fessed up. "I'm not going to pretend, I don't even have a ballpark. . . . From all these meetings, one thing that's very clear is we need more numbers."
So far, some say, the only stimulus the project has created is jobs for a couple dozen government consultants to answer questions about noise, traffic and environmental concerns.Poor communication
In December, farmers and families whose homes dot quiet horse trails and trickling streams surrounding the soybean fields on the proposed site were flabbergasted when federal officials announced that Ruthsburg was the State Department's preferred spot for the project. Residents began arguing that the installation would ruin the peace and quiet that decades ago led Maryland to set aside a large swath of nearby land as Tuckahoe State Park.
The NIMBY fight, however, quickly mushroomed into a much larger regional conflict, complicated by mistakes, poor communication and sloppy work by federal officials who were racing to spend the money as fast as they could.
Descriptions published in a solicitation for the land, for example, said air operations, .50-caliber machine guns, grenade launchers and other heavy artillery could be used at the site. State Department officials say the document was wrong, but they waited so long to address it that Queen Anne's County lawmakers withdrew support, and U.S. Rep. Frank Kratovil (D), Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) and others who had worked to bring the site to Maryland backed away.
Last month, a series of awkward responses by federal officials at a raucous town hall meeting of more than 500 people also left the impression the government might later take more land through eminent domain and that the largest bomb blasts, which government consultants say would be about as loud as sandblasting or a rock concert, would occur weekly. Last week, State Department officials said neither is true and made their best effort at setting the record straight and offering neighborly concessions, such as limiting the three-pound blasts to six times a year and firing guns and using the racetrack only during business hours.
But with so many revisions and contradictions and a vocal group of activists effectively sowing distrust over the facility, many residents say they no longer know what to believe.
Two Eastern Shore activists have already traveled to another State Department training area in New Mexico and filmed a blistering documentary on the alleged impact on local residents. Sales of the $5 video have been brisk outside local meetings with State Department officials. Eastern Shore business groups, which contend that polling shows a majority of county residents support the facility, have responded with a campaign to discredit the activists' video.
"We all kind of anticipated that there would be and continues to be some resistance to this, but we also want people to know that we want to work with those who have concerns and address each and every one the best that we can," said Culver, the head of the Diplomatic Security Service.
State Department officials say they are hopeful that they can remain on an original schedule to buy the land this summer and break ground by the end of the year, but they have already extended public comment periods by two months and acknowledge that delays, including legal challenges, are possible.
"We need to have a facility like other law enforcement agencies have, a place that we can call our own," said David J. Schnorbus, diplomatic security director of training. "I mean, it's our time."
Rhonda Tuel, who fears that the site and blasting will worsen her son's asthma, disagrees.
"It's a waste of money," Tuel said. "How many military bases and places does the government own across the country? There's not one other one they can use? The government needs to learn how to share."