Many residents of the historic Fort Ritchie and the surrounding town of Cascade, Maryland, are concerned regarding the manner in which Washington County government’s redevelopment plan for the retired military base was communicated to current residents. The redevelopment plan requires existing buildings at Fort Ritchie to be torn down to make room for a new mixed-use development called Cascade Town Centre. The development is intended to bring new residents and businesses to Cascade.
In mid-July, around ninety families that reside on the grounds of Fort Ritchie discovered that their leases would not be renewed and that they are being forced to relocate when their leases end over the next six months, some as early as September 2016.
The decision to terminate the leases of the residents of Fort Ritchie came on July 12, 2016, when the Washington County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to take the Fort Ritchie property from the current owner, PenMar Development Corporation, and transfer it to Washington County. Arrangements were approved by both parties, stating that ownership of the property would be completely transferred by September 15, 2016, and that redevelopment plans would be put into effect for Fort Ritchie by January 2017.
To many of the residents of the retired military base, the county’s decision to take charge of the property and its redevelopment came as a complete surprise. While the residents understood that redevelopment of their community was likely ever since the base was put up for sale by PenMar in 2015, not one of them anticipated being thrown out of their home so abruptly.
Jodi Gearhart, a single mother who lives in Fort Ritchie with her two thirteen-year-old children, said that she had no idea that the property was being transferred and that leases were being terminated until she read an article online by CJ Lovelace of Western Maryland’s Herald-Mail Media group.
“My initial notification of the issue was my neighbor,” Gearhart said. “He asked if I had read the Herald-Mail. I told him no, and he then told me that we have to be out by September. I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Gearhart said that it was not until July 14 that any written notification of the lease terminations was provided by PenMar or Washington County when some, not all, of the residents received letters.
Gearhart also said that the method by which the information was communicated seemed strange, “Normally, when PenMar has something, they take it and they put it in your door,” Gearhart said. “They come around on a little golf cart with the notifications, and they stick them in your storm door, like if they are having some kind of function or a traffic change. So I’m not sure why they felt like they had to physically mail them, and not just go around and post them, then we would have known the same day.”
Gearhart stated that hers and her fellow residents’ frustrations grew when Washington County officials refused to put anything concerning the redevelopment plan into writing until September.
“One of the biggest issues is that Washington County and PenMar right now are lacking in their transparency,” Gearhart said. “I live in Washington County, I work for Washington County, and I pay taxes to Washington County. This is my county. It’s different when the county tells you that you’re out, and that you have a few months to get out.”
Disturbed by the county’s lack of communication and concerned about the redevelopment plan, the residents of Fort Ritchie and the surrounding town of Cascade decided to take matters into their own hands by organizing a “Save Fort Ritchie” campaign.
Lev Ellian, a resident of Cascade, created the campaign when he built a Facebook page entitled “Save Fort Ritchie.” Gearhart and several other residents joined Ellian and created Twitter and Instagram accounts for the campaign as well. The Facebook page is currently being followed by more than 350 people.
Sterling Sanders, a nineteen-year-old resident of Cascade, helps run the daily social media operations, as well as organizes events for the “Save Fort Ritchie” campaign. Sanders helped to organize and lead a series of protests and prayer circles for the residents of Fort Ritchie to express their concern and to come together as a community.
“The prayer circle, instead of giving a message to the county, is giving a message to the community, letting them know that: we are sticking together, we are still here together, that we are going to fight this, we are going to stay together, and that we are going to put our faith in God,” Sanders said. “On the other hand, the protests send a message to the county that says ‘Hey, we aren’t going to give up on this, we’ve done this before, and we are going to do it again.’”
More than a hundred residents attended the protests held in July. While all present mainly protested the removal of the Fort Ritchie residents from their property, many of the protesters also voiced concerns ranging from distrust of the investors interested in purchasing Fort Ritchie to a fear of crime and pollution increase due to over-development.
In addition to the protests and prayer circles, the residents of Fort Ritchie and Cascade drafted a petition, asking Washington County officials to postpone the redevelopment plan until a public forum is held for residents to voice their opinions.
The petition, which was signed by nearly 200 individuals, was sent to the Washington County Board of County Commissioners, PenMar, Maryland District 2 Senator Andrew Serafini, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
While no written response from Washington County or PenMar officials has been released, Washington County Administrator Greg Murray and PenMar Executive Doris Nipps both said that the redevelopment of Fort Ritchie must proceed in order to bring back jobs and revitalize the Cascade area.
Despite these statements, the residents of Fort Ritchie and Cascade continue to reach out to the residents of surrounding areas and to members of the Washington County government to work toward a compromise to ensure the continued well-being of the displaced families and the historic grounds of Fort Ritchie.
“We can’t all just do this on our own; we’d like all of the people of all surrounding areas to get involved with this issue,” said Sanders. “Even if we don’t win this fight, I think it would really help and really be a great thing for us all to become closer with all of the people in the surrounding areas as a community. So whether or not we win in the end, we will, I think, get closer as a community, and hopefully get closer with our government, to open lines of communication with them and come together.”