FBI, FEMA move some jobs outside ‘blast zone’

Shenandoah Valley offers safer location than Washington

The Associated Press

Dec 27, 2006

WINCHESTER – The FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are moving jobs to the Shenandoah Valley – a picturesque locale that happens to be just outside Washington’s “blast zone.”

In the event of a nuclear explosion in the capital, Winchester’s location about 70 miles from Washington would put it outside the fallout zone, often estimated at 50 miles. At the same time, employees could easily travel to Washington when they need to.

The FBI chose Winchester, a city of 26,000, over other places of similar distance from Washington for a big centralized archive that by 2009 will employ at least 1,200 people, many of them now working in Washington and Baltimore. Some employees already are working in a temporary center outside Winchester.

Meanwhile, FEMA has chosen a farm just outside town for an operations center that will employ 700 people. Local officials say it will include positions moved from Mount Weather, the government’s hilltop emergency center on the border of Loudoun and Clarke counties.

The trend is happening elsewhere in the region as well. Outside Martinsburg, W.Va., the Coast Guard is building a National Maritime Center, a 200-person office currently in Arlington County. In Washington County, Md., near Hagerstown, the government is redeveloping the vacant Fort Ritchie to house national-security jobs.

Advocates of “smart growth” argue that moving government jobs to the valley will cause sprawl and warn that the growth could threaten the rolling Piedmont that acts as a buffer between development in Northern Virginia and the Interstate 81 corridor.

“Where’s the public debate, the elected officials’ oversight? This level of dispersal didn’t even happen at the height of the Cold War,” said Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “We ought to have an open dialogue about what the real threats might be and whether this dispersal is necessary.”

Federal officials defended the moves.

“For any government agency looking at a new facility in this day and age, of course, security is going to be a priority,” FBI spokeswoman Cathy Milhoan said.

The shift already is having an impact on the valley. Real estate agents and developers are buying up land along the half-dozen highways that ring Winchester in anticipation of contractor jobs and other activity that they expect will follow.

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