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St. Mary’s leaders are looking for ways to “BRAC-proof” the county as the Defense Department considers whether it will push for a round of base realignment and closures for 2017.

A BRAC, with the possibility of cutting jobs and moving programs, could save billions for the Pentagon, which already is under pressure from Congress to trim its budget during the next 10 years.

Congress, however, would have to approve the BRAC, which for communities across the nation that host military bases could be devastating. Few lawmakers seem to want to have their names attached to such upheaval. Congress has refused to accept BRAC recommendations for the past two years.

“The question really becomes what do we do here locally to do what’s necessary to protect the base?” asked St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R). If a BRAC were to occur, Morgan said, the Defense Department would survey regions, and look at factors that might lead up to a base being subject to significant changes.

Considerations include the quality of the school system, Morgan said. “The St. Mary’s school system has gotten good accolades,” he said.

Roadways are a factor. “We have to build FDR Boulevard to get traffic off [Route] 235,” he said, a project he says is due to begin next year. And, he said, defense leaders also look at whether space around a base is closing in and could affect the military’s ability to carry out its mission. “Encroachment was a big one,” Morgan said.

So, he and others have been opposing a project for wind turbines to be located in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore. From Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), Sen. Ben Cardin (D) and Rep. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s), Morgan said, “you have no idea how everybody came together for this one.”

The Maryland legislature has passed a bill that would put a 13-month moratorium on the project, because of concerns that it could interfere with radar at Pax River, though Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has expressed reservations about the legislation.

Hoyer testified before the Maryland Senate Finance Committee last week where he said, Patuxent River Naval Air Station is a “vital national security military installation, but serves as an important economic engine for Southern Maryland.” Hoyer asked the committee to further study the potential affects of those turbines, which he said could have an adverse affect on critical flight tests. A possibility, Hoyer wrote, would be to ask developer Pioneer Green to suspend turbine operations when critical testing is underway on the Chesapeake test range at Pax River.

Hoyer said a potential agreement between the Navy and the developer is under review, but has restrictions that concern him, possibly limiting the Navy’s ability to expand operations.

It’s a set of restrictions the region can’t afford, Hoyer said. The base employs 22,000 and contributes to up to 80 percent of the economy in St. Mary’s County. The state, Hoyer said, estimates Pax River contributes $7.5 billion to Maryland’s economy each year.

Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, visited St. Mary’s last month, talking with Navy leaders here, as well as representatives from the defense industry. Her focus, she said, was keeping the jobs at and surrounding Pax River in the region, and ensuring the Navy’s mission here is supported.

“I will continue to fight for Maryland’s public and private defense assets, keeping our nation safer and Maryland’s economy stronger,” Mikulski said in a statement.

“Let’s put the big ‘if’ out there,” Morgan said. “If you’re going to have a BRAC. If it’s in 2017, we have to continue to lay our groundwork.” That’s critical, he said, because other communities looking to support their economies, and grow their military installations, are looking at “how do I exploit somebody else’s weaknesses and how do I take something away.”

“This community is always cognizant of BRAC,” said Bill Scarafia, head of the St. Mary’s County Chamber of Commerce. “We’re looking at the possibility of a BRAC all the time.”

The St. Mary’s County commissioners have asked the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance to take the lead on a study that would look at strengths and potential weaknesses in the area, what might make Pax River more susceptible to BRAC and what might protect it. “If we show something lacking, they’re prepared to address those issues,” Scarafia said, referring to about $7 million in reserves the county government has set aside.

“I just think it’s important for people to understand that there are people who work on this all the time,” he said.

In the 1990s and in the mid-2000s, BRAC benefitted Pax River, Scarafia said. Thousands of jobs were brought to the region, and employees have laid roots here, buying homes, enrolling their children in schools, paying taxes, even retiring here.

The area has unique geography — water, protected airspace, stretches of land — that allows for extensive radar and aircraft testing to be executed, the region’s advocates say. There’s collaboration with industry and the local community, and the Navy has had room to grow.

It’s been a success, Scarafia said, and it likely would be difficult for the Defense Department to prove it needs to pay the upfront costs of relocating major programs away from Pax River.

“We just been able to show that we do it better and we do it faster,” he said. “We just need to be able to maintain that standard.”

nclark@somdnews.com