Wildfowl art museum yields to rare plant

January 31, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- For the sake of a patch of grass, an acre and a half of trees fell, a private foundation lost $72,000 and a planned $5.3 million museum was moved.

The future Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art had to be relocated 80 feet from its original proposed site in Salisbury after state officials discovered a rare plant on the property, representatives of the Ward Foundation told members of the state Board of Public Works yesterday.

Paying an architect to redesign the museum so that even the building's shadow would not fall on the 4-foot by 10-foot plot cost the private, non-profit foundation about $72,000, said Ralph A. Bufano, the foundation's executive director.

In addition to delaying the museum's construction four months, about 1.5 acres of loblolly pines had to be cut down to accommodate the patch of Eleocharis robbinsii, more commonly known as Robbins' spikerush, a kind of freshwater marsh grass.

"It's endangered weed," said a frustrated Mr. Bufano. "What really gets me is that nobody even seems to be very knowledgeable about the plant. That's what really upset me."

The plant, a variety of sedge described as an "ordinary-looking grass with small, nondescript flowers" was discovered on the 4.2-acre museum site along Schumaker Pond in late 1989 by David L. Hardin, a Salisbury consultant.

Officials from the state Department of Natural Resources confirmed the spikerush in the spring and then told the Ward Foundation they would not be issued a permit to build on the waterfront unless the rare plant was spared.

"We're concerned with maintaining the natural diversity the state has, and those rare species are a part of that," said Kathy A. McCarthy, an ecologist with the DNR's natural heritage program. "I think they provide a good signal of our overall impacts to the environment."

Ms. McCarthy said that since the first discovery in 1982, the DNR has found only four sites where Robbins' spikerush exists in Maryland, all of them on the lower Eastern Shore. The plant is classified as a "rare" species by the state.

The museum, originally designed to project over the man-made pond, had to be taken back from the water. In addition to the aesthetic loss, the move meant the two-story, concrete block and wood building lost any room for expansion, Mr. Bufano said.

"We've lost the drama of the view over the pond and a healthy backdrop of pines along the building," said the project's architect, Michael R. Wigley of Davis, Bowen and Friedel in Salisbury. "We basically sacrificed a lot of trees for a small bit of endangered plant."

Mr. Bufano said the foundation has so far raised $4.2 million toward the $5.3 million cost of building the country's largest museum devoted to wildfowl decoys and carvings. The state has committed $1.5 million with the rest coming from private donations, he said.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who serves as the museum's honorary chairman, scolded DNR officials for not informing him about the controversy until yesterday's board meeting. He also asked DNR Assistant Secretary Michael J. Nelson to arrange a visit to the site so that he may see the plants for himself.

Representatives of the Ward Foundation said that while they welcome a visit by the governor, the point may be moot. They broke ground for the museum in November and expect to complete the project late this year.

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