By MORGAN GIBSON
WASHINGTON (Feb. 12, 2010) - What started as an effort to create jobs in Queen Anne's County and increase national security has devolved into months of finger pointing, heated Facebook posts, dozens of furious letters, boycotts and a lot of extremely unhappy people.
Community tension has been high since November, when Hunt Ray Farm in Ruthsburg was announced as the preferred site for the State Department's proposed 2,000-acre Foreign Affairs Security Training Center.
The FASTC is a consolidation of 19 separate diplomatic security training facilities and it's expected to bring in 400-some, long-term jobs in maintenance, emergency medical services and administration, among others.
Some community members view the facility as a tremendous boost to the economy, while others see it as a detriment to the small, farm town society.
"They're talking about putting a bomb 60 feet from my backdoor," said Sherry Adam, whose home backs up to the proposed site. "This is God's county, this is one of the most beautiful areas, and to tear it up like that...it's just awful, these are my friends, these are my neighbors...it's going to be a terrible change."
The facility would offer both hard- and soft-skills training. Hard skills include weapons and explosive storage, driving tracks and indoor and outdoor firing and explosive ranges. Soft skills include simulation labs, administrative offices and classroom teaching.
Residents are hurrying to speak out by Feb. 19, when the public comment period of the National Environmental Policy Act process ends. NEPA is a law requiring government agencies to consider the environmental and cultural impacts of proposed projects before any plans go into action.
Those with questions and concerns will have their chance to be heard at a much-anticipated public forum scheduled from 6-8 p.m. Feb. 16 at Queen Anne's County High School in Centreville.
Opponents are upset with elected officials who backed the Ruthsburg site, the State Department and the General Services Administration, which is in charge of finding a site and building the facility.
"We don't want it," said Adam. "It feels like it's being shoved right down our throats."
One of the big areas of confusion has been the stance of elected officials.
Queen Anne's County Commissioners first learned in August the Ruthsburg site was one of 30 places in the running for the facility. They sent a letter to Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-Stevensville, asking for his support to win the training facility for their county.
In early September, Kratovil and Maryland Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski sent letters to the GSA and State Department, advocating for the Ruthsburg site.
On Nov. 30, Mikulski, Cardin and Kratovil announced that Hunt Ray Farm was chosen as the preferred site for the "job-rich" training facility. They called it a "big win" for both Maryland and the Eastern Shore economy.
Kratovil sent out a public statement three days later, citing the great opportunities the facility would bring to the area and quoted several residents, including Queen Anne's County Commission President Gene Ransom.
"This facility will open many new doors for business and commerce right here in Queen Anne's County," Ransom said in the press release. "It is a job creator and a revenue generator, and we have the efforts of Rep. Kratovil to thank for that."
Things took a turn for the worse just two weeks later.
On Dec. 17, almost 100 people went to a citizen's meeting in Ruthsburg Community Center to vent about the project's potentially negative impacts as well as the lack of information made available to the public by the government.
The politicians then backed their constituents.
Eric S. Wargotz, a Republican who is challenging Mikulski for her Senate seat, was the first county commissioner to withdraw his support from the project. He sent a letter on Dec. 21 to Mikulski.
In the commission meeting the next day, the training facility was the topic of debate and included a conference call with the State Department and the GSA.
The commissioners said they were upset with the government's lack of transparency and community involvement on the project. All four commissioners (Commissioner Courtney Billups was absent) voted unanimously to withdraw their support for the facility.
On Jan. 5 and 7 the GSA and the State Department held public information meetings at Queen Anne's County High School.
Linda Friday, president of the Queen Anne's County Chamber of Commerce and a facility supporter, said the Jan. 5 meeting was civil, but the Jan. 7 meeting was just the opposite.
Those opposed to the facility said the GSA was not prepared to answer their questions and were ignoring the protests, so they got frustrated and upset.
Friday said opponents stole the microphone from government officials and wouldn't let them speak. One man had to be escorted out of the room.
"The second meeting was really ugly," Friday said. "It just made Queen Anne's County look bad."
On Jan. 8, Mikulski wrote a heated letter to the GSA, criticizing them for not being better prepared and asking them to respond to local concerns. She requested the public comment period be extended from Jan. 15 to Feb. 19.
That same day, Kratovil withdrew his support because local concerns were not addressed, and because the commissioners withdrew their support.
Four days later the GSA responded to Mikulski's letter apologizing, promising a better public process, extending the public deadline to Feb. 19, and promising tours of other facilities similar to the proposed Ruthsburg site.
Since then locals have been weighing the pros and cons of the project.
The environmental impact of this facility has been a major focus of debate, especially since the Eastern Shore is a watershed for the Chesapeake Bay and the proposed site is next to Tuckahoe State Park, a tributary draining into the Chesapeake Bay.
On Feb. 3, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wrote a letter to the GSA stating that it is "concerned that the training facility may produce environmental impacts which run counter to federal efforts to protect water quality."
On the other hand, supporters argue the county needs the jobs and economic boost this facility would provide.
"I've seen too many businesses close in my 40 years living here," said Rachel Carter Goss, a longtime resident of Queen Anne's County who currently lives in Kent County. "We need this."
The two opposing sides have also argued the short-term economic influx from new workers spending money in restaurants, real estate, hotels and other businesses—some say it is a great opportunity while others only see it lasting a short time.
"I don't see the jobs for Queen Anne's County," said Commissioner Carol R. Fordonski. "Show me the real benefits, I don't see them."
Other controversial issues have been increased traffic hazards, noise constraints and the types of training on the campus.
Opponents are putting all their effort into keeping this site out of Queen Anne's County.
Sveinn Storm, an Eastern Shore activist and business owner, traveled to a hard skills training facility in New Mexico a few weeks ago to interview the town's public officials and residents about the negative effect of the facility on their community.
Storm made a 37-minute DVD documenting his findings and is distributing them for $5 each in hopes of informing the public before the public meetings and halting the government's interest in Queen Anne's County.
"Right now their plan is to do it and our plan is to kill it," said Storm, who has also led a boycott against local businesses supporting the project.
Supporters of the project believe those who oppose it are creating too much fear over the facility's possible effects on the community.
"People are rabble-rousing and creating such fear in people that bombs will be going off and they will be shooting their kids off their swing sets," Goss said.
Once the public comment period ends, the next step is to put together an environmental assessment, which will help determine the environmental and cultural impact of the facility on the county. That's expected to be completed in late March or early April, and then the public can comment on that assessment for 30 days.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.