INDIAN HEAD -- The land rises sharply off the Potomac River and rolls back toward the highway, a 2,300-acre expanse of field and woodlands that is home only to a nest of eagles, a plantation house and centuries of Southern Maryland history. With nearly two miles of shoreline, it is among the largest privately owned, undeveloped riverfront tracts in the Washington area.
A Chicago-based developer wants to change that. Banyan Management Corp. bought the property four years ago and already has invested $40 million in planning about 4,000 homes, stores, a school and parks -- a mini-Columbia about 20 miles south of Washington in Charles County. By the time it's completed in 20 years, the project could cost $1 billion, the developer's lawyer says.
Although Banyan has yet to file any permit applications, a group of Charles County residents has spent thousands of dollars in its quest to block the 680-acre portion of the project between the river and Indian Head Highway known variously as Mount Aventine and Chapman's Landing. The group believes this section holds the greatest environmental and historic significance; it does not oppose the larger section of the project south of the highway.
"Our goal is to propose [Mount Aventine] be made part of Piscataway National Park," said Carol Ghebelian, president of Friends of MountAventine. She referred to the 4,262-acre preserve on the Charles-Prince George's County line, a riverfront park separated from Mount Aventine by a creek and private homes.
"If we didn't think this property had great potential as preservation property, we wouldn't be devoting this energy to it," said Bonnie Bick, a Charles County resident and a director of the group, which claims about 200 members.
The developer's lawyer, George A. Brugger of Seabrook, says his client has no intention of proceeding with the project without developing the waterfront section.
"The river view is a major amenity," Mr. Brugger said. "Can you do a project without it? Sure. Would it be as good a project? No."
Mr. Brugger said Banyan also is concerned about history and the environment and is putting a lot of money into preserving both. He said Banyan plans to leave half of the 2,300 acres undeveloped. He said the planning team includes an urban forester and an expert on birds, who will see to the preservation of the eagle's nest and the woods around it.
Also working for Banyan is R. Christopher Goodwin, a Frederick archaeologist who plans to survey the property for historic and prehistoric sites. Under federal law, Mr. Goodwin said the developers must assess the impact of their project on historical features and make plans to preserve them on or off the site.
"The fact that they hired us indicates they're not going to do the wrong thing," said Mr. Goodwin.
None of this is much comfort to the Friends of Mount Aventine.
"A bulldozer is not the best instrument to be used on an archaeological resource such as this," said Ms. Bick.
"Townhouses are not compatible with historic preservation," said Elmer Biles, a member of the group.
In its effort to establish the historic significance of Chapman's Landing, the group paid a historian to draft an application placing the property on the National Register of Historic Places. The group wanted historic listing for 634 acres bordered by a three-sided ditch believed to date from the early 19th century. A state advisory panel agreed Wednesday to recommend listing of 180 acres, plus the ditch itself.
If accepted by the National Park Service, the listing would not restrict use of the property or prevent development.
The property first was owned in the mid-18th century by Nathaniel Chapman, a Virginia-born planter. Between the 1750s and the end of the 19th century the property served at different times as plantation, ferry crossing, logging operation and prolific herring fishery. A 17th-century map also shows three Pamunkey Indian villages on or right near the property.
Mr. Brugger said the developers have shown only rough sketches of the plans to the county and are awaiting the completion of countywide rezoning before filing formal applications. He said they were planning to build in phases, with the first work probably on the south side of the highway, away from the river.
County Planning Director Jacquelyn Magness Seneschal said the county is just a few weeks away from finishing this two-year rezoning but may exclude Chapman's Landing.