Relieved global tensions and defense cutbacks are making themselves felt directly in a handful of Washington area communities: Residents, elected officials and Army officers are wrangling over what should be done with the real estate left behind when military bases are declared obsolete.

Last year, Congress ordered 86 military installations to be shut nationwide within the next five years. Five of them are in the Baltimore-Washington area, including part of Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, Cameron Station in Alexandria, the Defense Mapping Agency in Herndon, the former Army Reserve Center in Gaithersburg and Fort Holabird in Baltimore.

"The sites we're giving up have a value to them that people have overlooked," said Col. Bob Hardiman of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installation, Logistics and the Environment. "There's value to the land because of its location."

By federal law, the properties must first be offered to other federal agencies, to be sold to them at market value, or to charitable organizations that may be interested in placing homeless shelters there. Beyond those restrictions, however, the individual branches of the military have been ordered to get top dollar for the sites.

With prime real estate up for grabs by such widely varying groups, it's not surprising that the planning processes have attracted attention and criticism. An array of options has been proposed for the five sites, including a hospital, a prison, a homeless shelter, a wildlife refuge and construction of other military structures -- as well as for-profit development of housing, shopping centers or office buildings.

Some of the bases also offer worrisome environmental cleanup problems because of their decades of use as firing ranges and chemical storage sites.

Two installations in particular already have generated steamy discussion: the 9,000-acre Fort Meade base, located prominently in the Baltimore-Washington corridor and the 164-acre Cameron Station complex, which sits in Alexandria's densely developed West End area, near Interstate 95 and Shirley Highway and a soon-to-be-completed Metro subway station.

In late June, the Alexandria City Council received a community task force report that called for mixed-use commercial and residential retail development on the site, along with 50 acres of open space and recreational areas. The proposal calls for about 1,800 units of housing, including town houses, condominiums and apartments, and office and retail buildings.

The main goal for Alexandria officials is to increase the city's tax base by encouraging private development. That objective pleases military officials, who hope to wring maximum profits from the sale.

"There's a lot of flexibility in the community's plan and a lot of consensus between the Army and the community over re-use of the site," said Patrick O'Brien, a project manager with the Pentagon's Office of Economic Adjustment.

The Alexandria task force panned two other proposed uses in the report. Alexandria Hospital's request for 25 acres there would be expensive and potentially inconsistent with the area master plan, the report said. The task force also expressed what it called "the strongest possible objection" to a proposal by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for a prison.

But another potentially unpopular use may become a reality on the Cameron Station site. The task force report said that the land could accommodate a homeless shelter, and that the "the developer will be encouraged to allow the use of an existing building or portion of vacant land to be developed last, for a shelter."

But even as matters progress amicably in Alexandria, the battle over Fort Meade is intense. There, according to O'Brien, "we're dealing with a different animal" than in Alexandria.

"We're on a course ... where the two bodies are going to collide," said Jerry Grant, administrative assistant to Rep. Tom McMillen (D-Md.)

A local coordinating council in Anne Arundel recently recommended that the entire 9,000 acres be maintained as open space, and granted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an addition to the 4,000-acre Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Two rivers wind through the site, and it is a nesting ground for bald eagles.

The Army, meanwhile, is hoping to recoup $130 million from the site by selling 3,000 acres to a private developer who would build a new town there with 6,500 housing units, a hotel and 7.5 million square feet of office and retail space -- plans that local officials could thwart if they refused to give the site the rezoning that would allow development of that magnitude to proceed.

The Army is willing to give up 6,000 of the acres for use as open space if it is permitted to sell the remaining third of the site, officials said.

"We agree with {the coordinating council} in large part ... but we do maintain that we should be able to develop the 3,000 acres," Hardiman said.

The Army faces yet another obstacle at Fort Meade. According to congressional testimony in April, the Army will first need to spend $53 million to remove landfills that contain leaking toxins, to conduct tests for groundwater contamination and to remove unexploded ammunition.

"Fort Meade has unusual problems," Grant said. "There is unexploded ordnance under the ground all over the place."

A 100-acre installation in Aberdeen, Md., poses an even more serious problem, according to military officials. It is a former Nike missile site that falls within the boundaries of the old Edgewood Arsenal area, long used for testing armaments, and it is so contaminated that it may cost more to clean it up than could ever be recouped from its sale.

"It appears that a substantial amount of environmental cleanup needs to be done at that site," said Gerry Bresee, a realty specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers. "We're not sure what the Army will do. It may not be economically viable to try to clean up and sell that site."

Three other, smaller sites in the Baltimore-Washington area raise fewer public policy questions and have received less public attention thus far. These sites include:

Fort Holabird in Baltimore, a six-acre site that is occupied by the Crime Records Center.

The Defense Mapping Agency site in Herndon, near Leesburg Pike, an 18-acre site in a residential area that officials believe will be easy to sell.

The former Army Reserve Center in Gaithersburg, about 18 acres, a site that poses some environmental cleanup problems.