When Peggy Eppig looks out the windows of her northern Harford County home, she's put at ease knowing that the pristine wilderness she sees is just months away from being protected from development.
Lastweek, the state Department of Natural Resources said it expects to buy 22 acres of woodland in the Falling Branch area early next year, preserving the wilderness that Eppig and county conservationists say is at risk of being lost to development.
"I'm breathing easier. This was our goal," said Eppig, a ranger at Rocks State Park who initiated a campaign to get the state to buy the Falling Branch site earlier this year.
The site, located four miles north of Rocks State Park, contains a 17-foot waterfall -- the second-highest vertical fall in Maryland.
The state bought another 22-acre site in Falling Branch last year -- a protected area where Eppig and her family live.
Because of the state's fiscal crisis, citizens did not expect the state would come up with the money to buy more land in Falling Branch until late next year, if at all.
A Harford citizens committee -- made up of four lawyers, three artists and abanker -- considered forming a non-profit organization to buy land at Falling Branch, if the state did not come through with the money.
Last week, DNR administrators said they expect to proceed with signing an option to buy the land in the scenic Falling Branch area, thensell bonds to pay for the site.
Before administrators can go to the bond market, the plan must be approved by the state Board of Public Works. The three-member board, which includes Gov. William Donald Schaefer, is expected to act on the plan early next year.
Bernie Wentker, a regional administrator for the state's Program Open Space, declined to disclose the price of the land until the state and the property's owner, Walter Grimmel of Jarrettsville, sign a contract.
The state was planning to pay $125,000 for the site earlier this year,but that plan died during the state's budget crisis.
As negotiations with Grimmel proceeded, the state General Assembly yanked about $80 million out of Program Open Space's budget to ease Maryland's fiscal deficit. Negotiations to buy the waterfall site and other areas inMaryland halted.
But when the money was taken from the program, legislators gave the program's administrators authorization to sell bonds to finance the purchase of land, Wentker said. The state then renewed negotiations with Grimmel and set the basis for bond sale.
Program Open Space, overseen by DNR, got its money from a portion of the real estate transfer tax. The program, started in 1969, has been used to acquire and develop 35,000 acres as parks across the state, including the Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air and Mariner Point Park in Joppatowne.
Falling Branch, named for the stream that feeds Deer Creek, is rich in county history, woodlands and wildlife and was home to some of the county's first settlers. The remains of mills, tanneries, farms and stills that date back to the 1700s are near the waterfall, Kilgores Rocks.
"It's one of the few wilderness places in the state," said Shannon Batchelor, an artist from Madonna who was organizing a committee for the preservation of Falling Branch. "It's just alovely, lovely place to go."
When the money was taken out of Program Open Space's budget, conservationists in the county feared the site would be developed before state could get money to preserve it.
They believe the area is already feeling development pressure and point to two lots near the waterfall sold recently as home sites. A third property owner attempted to subdivide land nearby earlier this year.
As the state quietly negotiated with Grimmel, a citizens group formed to organize petition drives and letter-writing campaigns to support the acquisition of the waterfall site.
The citizens group, called the Citizens Committee for Falling Branch, sent a petition signed by 250 people from Harford, Baltimore and Cecil counties to Schaefer three weeks ago.
"We were very lucky to get this," Batchelor said, noting the state's continuing fiscal crisis. "We just have to be satisfied with this for now."
But Eppig said she'd like the state and citizens to start planning to preserve more land in the 140-acre Falling Branch area.
"The work is not finished with this project,"Eppig said. "Hopefully, we can keep the ball rolling."