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14 November 2016

West Virginia: For Sale: 123-Acre Mountain Retreat

There are 80 homes on the former naval base.
Photo: General Services Administration
For Sale: 123-Acre Mountain Retreat With a Secret Code Name
by Harriet Torry, The Wall Street Journal,
31 October 2016

U.S. Navy’s former eavesdropping enclave seeks buyer; cellphone dead zone

SUGAR GROVE STATION, W.Va.—If you’re looking to start a religious order, set up a high-security summer camp—or truly drop off the grid—a secluded Appalachian getaway being auctioned off on behalf of the U.S. military might be just the thing.

Sugar Grove, an 80-home former naval base nestled on 123 acres in the rolling hills of rural West Virginia, is a self-contained community with tennis courts, a baseball diamond, and its own water and power systems. It also offers status-conscious buyers something unique to brag about—a history of involvement in covert U.S. data collection and eavesdropping.

According to documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, spy operations conducted in the Sugar Grove area went by the codename “Timberline.”

The base’s former purpose “was to perform communications research and development for the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense and various elements of the U.S. government,” a Navy spokesman said.

One small complication of the compound’s snooping past: cellphone coverage ranges from spotty to nonexistent. The facility is situated inside the 13,000 square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone, where interference from electromagnetic waves, like those emitted from phone towers and radio transmitters, is severely limited or blocked.

“I’m already having issues checking my messages,” said Shukoor Ahmed as he peered at his dead mobile phone during a recent open-house for interested buyers. The tech entrepreneur, based in Bowie, Md., said he is considering the site for retirement housing or a tech incubator—provided he can work around the connectivity issues.

Though this particular compound has been closed, the Sugar Grove area hasn’t shed its aura of mystery. Just up the road is the checkpoint entrance to another discrete facility dotted with satellite dishes.

In 2013, when the Navy announced plans to close the compound now for sale, it said operations would be absorbed by the National Security Agency. The NSA didn’t respond to requests for comment.

One curious shopper, during a tour of the compound for sale, joked that the facility not for sale might be a secret home for nuclear missiles.

Chad Bennett, chief executive of Heroic, a cybersecurity firm based in Provo, Utah, said he is attracted by the site’s privacy and security—it is surrounded by a river and forest and a tall fence. Visitors must enter through a gate house.

“We’re looking for somewhere with that kind of mystique, in addition to the physical benefits of the facility,” he said. On the downside, “it’s in the middle of nowhere, and attracting people would be extremely difficult.”

The Navy set up Sugar Grove during the Cold War and moved out last year, but federal and state authorities declined to repurpose it. Since then, the General Services Administration, which is handling the auction, has been struggling to sell it. The winner of an initial online auction defaulted on an $11.2 million offer this summer, and then the runner-up defaulted too.

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