Tennis, sailing or spying? US shuts 2 Russian compounds

In this Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 photo, an entrance to the grounds of a riverfront compound near Centreville, Md., that has been used by Russian Federation diplomats for years is blocked to reporters by state department personnel. As part of the move to punish Russia for its role in hacking the Democratic National Committee and influencing a United States election, President Barack Obama on Thursday announced sanctions that include shuttering the compound. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)
In this Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 photo, an entrance to the grounds of a riverfront compound near Centreville, Md., that has been used by Russian Federation diplomats for years is blocked to reporters by state department personnel. As part of the move to punish Russia for its role in hacking the Democratic National Committee and influencing a United States election, President Barack Obama on Thursday announced sanctions that include shuttering the compound. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

CENTREVILLE, Md. (AP) — The Obama administration is shutting access to a New York retreat and a swanky Maryland riverfront compound where Russian diplomats played tennis, sailed and escaped the political bustle, saying those doubled for intelligence activities.

As the Obama administration retaliates for alleged cyber-meddling in the U.S. presidential election, Russians were being denied access to the compounds starting at noon Friday. President Barack Obama announced that step recently in Washington as part of sanctions highlighted by the expulsion of 35 Russians.

The 45-acre Maryland retreat boasts a brick mansion along the Corsica River in the bucolic Eastern Shore region. Reports indicate it was bought by the former Soviet Union in 1972 and historically served as a recreational getaway for its diplomats seeking a respite from the diplomatic whirl in nearby Washington, D.C.
White House officials said this week that the compounds were being used for intelligence activities.

On Thursday, people who identified themselves as U.S. State Department employees asked reporters to leave when they approached the Maryland property.

Alison Davis, who lives nearby, said the Russians have been using that complex for years.

“We coexist with these people peacefully. It’s basically their summer cottage, but we see the diplomat tags driving here all the time, very friendly,” she said. “We see them biking, say hello.”

Still, she said, local residents don’t “really have any interactions with them. They kind of keep to themselves.”

She said the compound has a private beach and had been known to be used for a sailing regatta at the end-of-summer Labor Day holiday weekend.

An Associated Press story from 1992 about the sprawling property said at the time that the brick mansion had been converted into 12 apartments and a dozen cottages, each with four apartments; in total, the compound can accommodate 40 families at a time, according to that report.

That report also said the property then boasted four lighted tennis courts, a swimming pool and a soccer field — and that a summer camp was held there for Russian children and for two weeks each Christmas.

Russia also maintains two weekend retreats for its United Nations diplomats about an hour’s drive outside New York City — each in one of Long Island’s old Gold Coast mansions.

One, the Elmcroft estate, located in the village of Upper Brookville in the town of Oyster Bay, was originally purchased by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. The other is the Killenworth mansion, not far away in the small city of Glen Cove, also bought during the Cold War era.

U.S. officials didn’t clarify which of the two countryside compounds would be closed, but Glen Cove mayor Reggie Spinello said Friday that it wasn’t Killenworth. And about a dozen men with badges and black SUVs who identified themselves as being with the U.S. State Department blocked the gate Friday to the Upper Brookville estate.

Both Long Island properties were the subject of long-running property battles between the Russian government and local officials, who insisted that the luxurious estates be subject to property taxes. Those disputes have since been resolved, and for years the Town of Oyster Bay has waived parking and beach permit fees for Russia’s U.N. diplomatic staff as a goodwill gesture.

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