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Federal FASTC forum draws 100s

By BOBBY MCMAHON Special from The Star Democrat
Monday, March 1, 2010 3:26 pm | Updated: 9:26 am, Wed Mar 3, 2010. 

Bonnie Roschy (pictured at left) points out the location of her house on Greenville Road which is only about 1000 feet from the proposed Foreign Affairs Security Training Center. 

CENTREVILLE Hundreds of people packed classrooms and voiced their concerns at a much-anticipated public forum on the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) at Queen Anne's County High School on Feb. 16.

After two often-contentious meetings last month, the public forum on the proposed training site in Ruthsburg was more civil and informational, but not  without passionate comments from those opposed to the facility, particularly at the question-and-answer portion of the forum.

A slew of government officials and hired consultants held workshops in a number of classrooms, answering questions with individuals and small groups. 

Information at the workshops centered on common concerns of community members, including worries about increased noise, what would and would not happen at the site and potential economic effects.

Christopher Peoples, a lead architect with the firm KCCT, noted the several changes made to the site as a result of public comments and concerns. In a revised layout of the facility, one explosive range has been eliminated and another moved to a more interior portion of the facility to reduce noise. He said they also have moved the main campus of administrative buildings away from Ruthsburg and relocated the main entrance from Route 481 to Route 304 to reduce traffic.

Peoples also sought to clarify what the outdoor shooting range would look like. He said that calling it "outdoor" is almost a misnomer the building will be fully baffled (which means that rounds cannot escape), and Peoples presented a picture of a concrete and steel building with a ventilated roof, with vents pointing in the opposite direction of the firing.

"There's no live firing out in the open," Peoples said, adding that only paintball guns or air rifles would be used in the open. "All live fire is done in a contained environment."

On the issue of jobs coming to the area, Ellyn Goldkind, a project manager for the site, explained that the government will hire people for "a gamut of jobs," running the range from food service positions to higher-paying budget analyst positions. She said jobs would be given to the most qualified applicants, with no preference given if someone lives in the area.

For the construction phase of the project, Goldkind explained that the federal government will select a general contractor who would be responsible for hiring subcontractors. She added that government officials will provide networking opportunities for subcontractors and local businesses looking to work on the project.

On the issue of noise, Adam Bodner, director of the Office of Real Property Management at the State Department, said that numerous strategies were being looked at to mitigate concerns. For explosive ranges, these strategies included placing earthen berms and vegetation around the range as well as setting the range in a 5-foot-deep hole.

As noise would still be a factor, officials at the workshop provided estimates of what community members could expect regarding noise levels. From Queen Anne's County High School, officials said the 3-pound explosions would measure between 69 to 79 decibels (comparable to an alarm clock or a vacuum cleaner), and the half-pound explosions would measure 50 to 60 decibels (comparable to normal conversation level).

Beyond specifics about the facility's effects on the community, officials provided more information about why the site is necessary.

Chris DiZebba, deputy project manager for the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said the facility will partially consolidate training that is done at facilities rented by the department because the department has to pay other organizations to use their facilities, the FASTC will be much more cost effective.

DiZebba also touched on the types of training that would not be done at the site. He emphasized that the use of chemical or biological weapons, weapons over .50 caliber, explosions larger than 3 pounds and helicopters would not be used.

"There will be no helicopter training at this site," DiZebba said. "There is no helicopter pad. It is not envisioned that that will ever be something that we would do here because, quite frankly, the site is not equipped for it."

But even with the new and updated information provided by officials, many attendees felt that they were not getting straight answers, that questions had not been answered or both.

Melanie Walbert of Centreville said she heard "a lot of open sentences and lawyer talk" from officials and that response "left a lot of wiggle room."

Rich Walbert, Melanie's husband, was frustrated about being sent from room to room to receive answers to his questions as well as officials being unable to answer questions with greater specificity, including when the 3-pound explosions would occur. In general, he questioned if the government would follow through on what they've said will happen.

"I get real suspicious when the government says 'this is what we're going to do,'" Walbert said.

This issue of trust was a common theme among speakers at the forum's question-and-answer session, with many questioning how community grievances would be addressed if the site is built. Other speakers were concerned about how the site would affect quality of life and property values in the area, the prospect of jobs for residents and the general need to build the facility at all. Officials admitted that many questions could not be answered until the draft environmental assessment is released in late March or early April.

A majority of questions came from Ruthsburg residents and others who had spoken out against the project before at Queen Anne's County Commission meetings or at the other public forums. Many became passionate about their opposition to the site, promising to fight the project tooth and nail, which often brought shouts and applause from portions of the audience.

In a sentiment echoed by many speakers, John Root asked, "When will you go away?"

In response to one such question, Chuck Raderstorf, project director for the FASTC for the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, emphasized the government's eagerness to be good neighbors and the hope that people would continue to share their concerns so that officials can improve the site.

"We're going to be the best we can to try and design and develop and build a facility that we think will work for us and will also work for you," Raderstorf said. "Director (Jeffrey) Culver has stood up and said operationally, we will do everything we can to try and make this palatable. We have an obligation to try and provide the best training we can for these individuals going overseas I don't think you'd dispute that. I understand that you don't necessarily want it in your backyard."

In response, several in the crowd shouted back.

"We don't want it," said one. "We're not willing to work with you," said another.

While those in opposition to the project dominated the question-and-answer period, many in attendance were hopeful that the project would move forward.

Nick Caruso, with the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local 24, said the construction phase would be a "big boon" to electricians and other construction workers who have been struggling in the down economy.

"We've been out of work for a long time," Caruso said. "Not just my electricians, but everybody in general. Just a little bit of help goes a long way."

Others said they were still on the fence about the project, including Greg Williams of Centreville, who said it was not yet clear "if the benefits outweigh the obvious cons." He observed that most of the people who spoke up during the question-and-answer session were already opposed to the facility, and thought the forum on the whole was helpful.

"I think it was a good discussion overall," Williams said. "I'm glad that they've taken the time to do this prior to the final decision to get community input."

The deadline for public comments has been extended until March 12 and officials are accepting invitations to speak with groups.

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