The agreement to transfer most of the surplus land at Fort Meade to the Interior Department for a wildlife refuge was the result of the Maryland congressional delegation's lobbying the House Appropriations Committee for months, according to Rep. Tom McMillen (D).
The disposition of the 9,000 surplus acres at Fort Meade has been in doubt since December 1988, when the 71-year-old Army post was listed as one of 91 military installations nationwide to be closed entirely or partly.
"This is really unprecedented. The base closure act is driven by the desire to recover monies, and the fact that we were able to transfer this land at no cost is a big step forward," McMillen said yesterday at a briefing for state and local officials.
On Monday, the House passed a military construction appropriations bill that would transfer 7,600 acres to the Interior for an addition to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The legislation also allows the Army to sell the remaining 1,400 acres -- 1,000 that are vacant and the 400-acre Tipton Airfield.
According to Gary B. Paterson, chief of the base closure office of the Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Meade is only the second of the 91 military installations to have its fate fairly well defined.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said the Maryland delegation had been concerned about the property from the time it learned that the land, in Anne Arundel County off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway on the Prince George's County line, was for sale, and immediately began working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect it.
Because the surplus acreage is larger than Reston or Rockville, the idea that it would be turned into residential neighborhoods was disturbing, he said, as was the potential loss of a vast swath of pristine forest that contains two rivers, bald eagles and other wildlife.
McMillen said he and Hoyer began making their pitch to members of the House Appropriations Committee in April after it became evident that the Bush administration was not going to cooperate with the goal of state and local officials of preserving the entire 9,000 acres in their natural state. The Army was pressing to recover as much money as possible by selling one-third of the land for private development.
The delegation agreed to let the Army sell 1,400 acres as a compromise with Republican committee members who "didn't want to give the whole thing away," said Hoyer, a member of the committee.
"There were reservations about setting a precedent for transferring all closed bases to public entities so we didn't recoup any money from base closure," Hoyer said.
Hoyer said the delegation's effort was aided by an Army study showing that the Fort Meade property is littered with unexploded shells from decades of miltary exercises that could detonate if disturbed during construction. Although the Army has indicated that it could clean up the hazard for $50 million and still turn a profit by selling the land for development, Hoyer said he tried to persuade committee members that the Army's projections were "speculative at best."
He and McMillen said they are confident that the House-passed plan will become law because it has the support of Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr.