The Federal Jobs a Maryland Town Doesn't Want

A new State Department facility would bring hundreds of jobs to Maryland's Eastern Shore. But some locals aren't happy. How a proposed government project went sour

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Photograph by Jeff Hutchens-Reportage / Getty Images for Time

A local community debates the creation of a United States State Department anti-terrorism training facility on farmland adjacent to their homes in Ruthsburg, Maryland. The residents against the facility claim the driving tracks, firing ranges and explosive charges at the facility would destroy the quiet of the community of roughly 400 residents.

The residents of Ruthsburg, MD., have come here to escape. A cluster of cozy homes nestled amid rolling farmland on the state's Eastern Shore just 65 miles (105 km) from Washington, Ruthsburg has no stores, no stoplights and no noise apart from the geese squawking in nearby Tuckahoe State Park. "It's as if you turned back time 100 years," says resident Sherry Adam. But with a new neighbor angling to move in, this bucolic hamlet has become a battleground. On Nov. 30, the State Department and the federal government's General Services Administration (GSA) announced Ruthsburg was their top pick to become the home of a new antiterrorism and diplomatic-security training center. The proposed 2,000-acre (810 hectare) campus, which would streamline training now scattered across 19 sites, is expected to create 400 permanent jobs. At first, elected officials exulted. "The training facility is good news for three reasons: jobs, jobs and more jobs," Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski said.

In sleepy Queen Anne's County, however, the massive project — which could cost up to $500 million and will receive $70 million in stimulus funds during the first phase of construction — is turning out to be politically poisonous. Residents whose homes abut the farms the GSA would purchase to develop the facility say driving tracks, firing ranges and explosive charges would pierce the cherished quiet. Conservationists are urging a more rigorous environmental review. Others question the decision to plunk such an installation into a pastoral community with comparatively low unemployment. "There's never been an explanation of why Ruthsburg came to be the favored site," says Eric Wargotz, a Republican county commissioner running for Mikulski's Senate seat.

Opponents have a theory, however. "It has every appearance of being a political plum," says Jay Falstad, an official with the Queen Anne's Conservation Association. The local Democratic Congressman, Frank Kratovil, is a freshman Blue Dog on shaky footing in a Republican district. But officials say the choice was driven not by politics but by logistics. In an e-mail to Time, a GSA spokesman says Ruthsburg's selection was "based on dozens of criteria, including proximity to Washington, developable area, shape, topography, availability and mission requirements." Still, presentations given to demystify the project have drawn scores of irate residents. The backlash crested at an ugly session on Jan. 7, when opponents, citing mixed messages about the facility's purpose and scope, accused the government of duplicity. "If this is such a godsend," one wondered, "why are they lying to us?"

The following day, Mikulski wrote a letter to the GSA that called the rollout an "unmitigated disaster" that had stirred "what I fear is now an implacable opposition to the project." Kratovil has exhorted locals to "take a deep breath" and await the environmental-review results, and four of the five county commissioners have rescinded their support. "What we're up against are politicians with their fingers in the wind and without the slightest care about the individuals who will be hurt most," says Sveinn Storm, a businessman and activist who visited a similar facility in Playas, N.M., to document its effect on the community.

Yet proponents, including a number of business owners, argue that thunderous denunciations from a small minority have manufactured the illusion of widespread hostility. A January poll found that just 27% of the 403 residents surveyed opposed the project. "The people that are against it are always the loudest," says Linda Friday, president of the county's Chamber of Commerce.

As they scramble to recover from a flubbed p.r. campaign, GSA officials have promised to muffle noise by installing earthen berms, vegetated perimeter buffers and baffled firing ranges. But the government has the final say over whether to purchase the property, and at times the anger and tough talk have a hint of helplessness. "They're trying to ram this down our throats," says Andrew Eastman, a Ruthsburg resident. "I just don't trust them."