RUTHSBURG In a meeting with citizens at the Ruthsburg Community Center Monday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., announced that the federal government has abandoned the proposal to place a security training facility in Ruthsburg.
The U.S. General Services Administration and Department of State announced last fall that the 2,050 acres made up by the Hunt Ray and Crismer farms was the preferred spot for a new Foreign Affairs Security Training Center. The center, which would be funded by stimulus dollars, would combine training for diplomats now conducted at 19 different facilities.
The proposal, however, was met with stiff local resistance, especially after government officials failed to provide specific answers to questions at two public hearings. The Queen Anne's Conservation Association had filed multiple legal challenges, and on the day the project's demise was announced, the Center for Biological Diversity also announced its intent to sue over impacts to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.
"GSA told me officially that they are officially terminating the projects," Mikulski told applauding members of Friends of Ruthsburg on Monday.
"The process has worked," she said of the government backing away from Ruthsburg. "This was the right idea but in the wrong place."
Mikulski said the location would have required extensive environmental review, considering the effects on wetlands, traffic, noise and safety. An archaeological review also would have been necessary, as historical artifacts were recovered in samplings.
"Your insistence on the questions you asked had them really flesh out their work in more detail," Mikulski said.
Mikulski avoided taking a position one way or another, saying in interviews since the fall that her focus was on the community being heard and the government complying with the law. She also penned a sharply worded letter successfully requesting more public hearings when questions went unanswered during the initial round.
"We were heard. Sometimes we had to shout a little," she said.
The job creation aspect of the proposal did sound good, Mikulski said, but new jobs need to be compatible with the area.
In the letter announcing the move, GSA Administrator Martha Jackson wrote, "Senator, as you know, the National Environmental Policy Act is intended to ensure that a full and open process is in place to objectively evaluate the impacts of a proposed federal action and thereby inform decision-making. In this case, the preliminary analysis showed that, among other potential concerns, there would be a significant change in land use and considerable noise and traffic impacts.
"We appreciate the community's involvement throughout this process and are confident it led to the proper conclusion," Jackson wrote.
The facility is still needed to ensure the safety of civilian employees and partners in unstable regions of the world, Jackson wrote.
It just won't be in Ruthsburg.
"It was an honor for the senator to come to Ruthsburg and make this announcement to us directly. We feel very honored that she did it," Norma Dean said at the community center. "We're glad this is all behind us."
Susanne Mason said she was hoping for good news when she learned Mikulski would be in town.
"I think we're all very firm believers that the process does work," Mason said.
Mason and Sherry Adam said the proposal has sort of rejuvenated the community. Adam said she didn't know many of her neighbors a year ago, but now they're all very close.
Mason's daughter, Kate Mason, said she cried at many meetings about the project, but on Monday she cried tears of joy.
"Today it's definitely happiness and nothing else," the younger Mason said. "I'm absolutely ecstatic about this."
Jay Falstad, a spokesman for the Queen Anne's Conservation Association, said he was pleased the government eventually came to the same conclusion as the locals.
"We're delighted that Sen. Mikulski took the time to come to Ruthsburg and deliver this wonderful news," Falstad said. "This is a great day for Ruthsburg, Queen Anne's County and the Eastern Shore."
Falstad added that he expects the government to still hand over the documents that show how Ruthsburg came to be considered, as ordered by a judge.
Not everyone was pleased with the announcement. Several organizations, including Business Queen Anne's, the Queen Anne's County Chamber of Commerce and the Eastern Shore Leadership Council had touted the potential economic benefits of a facility that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and bring more people to the area.
"We're disappointed," said Linda Friday, president of the chamber of commerce. She lamented the "opportunities that could have been brought to not just Queen Anne's County, but the area."
U.S. Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-Md.-1st, who was participating in a teleconference with AARP during Mikulski's visit, said in a statement that while he's disappointed the district lost an economic opportunity, a number of substantive concerns rendered the site unworkable.
"While I would have preferred that the full environmental review be made public before a final decision was announced, I am nonetheless grateful to all of the citizens who made their voices heard throughout the process," he said. "I look forward to working with local, state, and federal leaders to seek new opportunities to help bring new jobs and economic opportunities to the Eastern Shore."
The federal government, however, will also consider sites in other states around Washington, D.C.
Mikulski said that just as the people have a right to be heard, diplomats have a right to be protected.
"The need to build this project is urgent," she said. "I am committed to working very hard right away to keep this project in Maryland."
She said GSA should first look at sites that are already government-owned. The community should also be engaged earlier in the process this time, she said.
Queen Anne's County Commissioner Eric Wargotz, who is also running on the Republican side for Mikulski's Senate seat, said he still wonders how the site was ever considered.
"It was never the right place," Wargotz said. "It didn't have the infrastructure to welcome such a site and I think everyone is still curious as to how it ever got selected. I have a lot of concern about their process and the fact that it was not transparent."
"This is certainly welcome news to many in the community, including myself," he added.
Wargotz said he would like to see the facility end up in a suitable place in Maryland, particularly on land already owned by the government.
Jim Campbell, a member of Queen Anne's Conservation Association Executive Committee, said he hopes lessons are learned from the experience.
"A major reason why the federal government miscalculated so badly on Ruthsburg is that our local elected officials, senior county staff and county planning and zoning too often fail, as they did here, to reflect the citizenry's commitment to preserving farmland and the Eastern Shore way of life," Campbell said.