Fort Meade sprawls across 5,400 acres in the northwest corner of Anne Arundel County, about four miles east of Interstate 95 and a half-mile east of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. It's about halfway between Baltimore and Washington; the closest communities are Odenton, Laurel, Columbia and Jessup.

About 12,000 service members and more than 25,000 civilians work on the base for all branches of the military. Among the 78 different military organizations and federal agencies housed there are the National Security Agency, the Defense Information School, and Army and Air Force intelligence units.

About 7,000 military and family members live in the 2,862 housing units on base. Any service member within an hour's drive of Fort Meade can request quarters there; housing is assigned by rank, with different waiting lists for each rank.

The fort, established in 1917, was named for Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, whose strategy at the Battle of Gettysburg helped turn the tide in favor of the North. Few of the fort's oldest buildings survive, and none are used for housing. About 112 housing units date to the 1930s and will be restored as part of the housing privatization pilot program, said George L. Barbee of the Army's privatization office.

Most of the other housing dates to 1959, during the last round of extensive military housing construction. In the past four decades, they have had roof and kitchen renovations but little else.

The housing is not only in bad shape, Barbee said, it also doesn't come close to measuring up to what's being offered in the surrounding community. The average size of a Fort Meade three-bedroom unit is 1,180 square feet, while a typical three-bedroom in the private sector is 1,711 square feet.

The privatization proposal would turn all 2,862 units over to private companies. The Army and the developer will agree on how to fix things up. At this point, the favored solution would be to replace 2,488 units, build 263 new units for junior enlisted men and maintain 262 units built in 1996. The developer could also build tot lots, community centers and other "support facilities," such as child development centers, as long as they don't compete with existing facilities on base that feed recreational programs.

Fort Meade's barracks for 1,835 unmarried soldiers would not be included in the program.