Developing Bay-Front Farmland: Hopkins vs. Herons

PETER A. JAY

August 16, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- The heron, perched on a snag overlooking the Susquehanna Flats, watched coldly with its yellow eyes.

There is something arresting about these ancient birds, which seem gawky when standing still but can move with a quick and deadly grace. They treat human intruders with prudence, moving away if necessary, yet without much interest or respect.

I was in an outboard skiff a few yards offshore, moving slowly so as not to leave a wake. The heron -- or crane, as they're still $$ inaccurately called around here -- was obviously unenthusiastic about my presence. It reminded me of a distinguished university professor interrupted in his laboratory by a group of high school juniors on a tour of the campus.

The simile no doubt came to mind because as I had been moseying down the Swan Creek channel, passing the only four farms in Harford County located directly on the Chesapeake Bay, I had been thinking about universities. The owner of one of the farms is Johns Hopkins University, and that's not very good news for the heron.

The university was given a 520-acre farm along the waterfront in 1986. The donor was John W. Kenney, an elderly Washington lawyer who had used the property as a weekend retreat. The property, with the better part of a mile of shoreline, has been variously known as Swan Harbor Farm and Wilton.

Mr. Kenney's generous gift was made, essentially, without strings. Johns Hopkins, which under former president Steven Muller had spent itself into a serious financial hole, grabbed the farm and moved swiftly and ruthlessly to turn it into the biggest pile of dollars possible.

In 1989, it asked Harford County for zoning which would have allowed the construction of 1,700 houses on the farm, a development which would have had the most serious consequences for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Harford County Council, wisely and without much debate, rejected this grotesque application.

Today, although Mr. Muller has departed, the university is still playing dog in the manger, sitting on the property and apparently waiting for a more propitious political moment to play the rezoning card once again. There is some possibility that the farm could be annexed by Havre de Grace, which might be more susceptible than the county to pressure from Hopkins.

Meanwhile, the farm is for sale. Johns Hopkins has been asking $6 million for it. There are new obstacles to major development, ++ however, which make this price unrealistic.

A portion of the farm, well back from the water and near Route 40, is already zoned for industrial use and could be sold for that purpose now, probably without adverse environmental implications. But Maryland's Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas law gives the long shoreline greater protection than before.

Much of the low-lying and poorly-drained farm probably qualifies as non-tidal wetland, another obstacle to development. And finally, there are both legal and engineering obstacles to the establishment of the rights-of-way necessary to provide adequate access to the property.

The logical course for Hopkins now, it would seem, would be to put the idea of intensive development aside and try to work out a plan for this unusual piece of bay-front property with Harford County, the state and federal governments and major conservation organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy.

It ought to be possible for all parties involved to come out ahead, with the university receiving a significant cash benefit from Mr. Kenney's gift and the farm being protected from inappropriate development. But whether that will happen is anyone's guess. First, somebody has to make a positive move.

The next farm to the Kenney property, Belle Vue, belongs to the Davis family. Davises have owned it for 200 years, except around the time of the Civil War when they let it slip away for a decade or so. Before the Davises became owners through marriage, the farm had been in the same family since 1661, when it was purchased for 3,000 pounds of tobacco.

When Johns Hopkins became his next-door neighbor, Dr. E. Hollister Davis, the present owner of Belle Vue, asked Steven Muller if they could meet to discuss the future of Swan Harbor Farm. Mr. Muller couldn't find time for such a meeting, but did send a letter saying that Johns Hopkins wanted to "derive the maximum benefit possible" from the sale of the property. He also suggested that Dr. Davis might like to give Hopkins some money.

Johns Hopkins officials also asked Dr. Davis if he'd mind selling them a right-of-way to help them develop their land. I know Dr. Davis, who's about 90, and have no doubt his negative response was appropriately pungent.

But that's history. Let's look at the present, and the future. With Steven Muller gone, real estate values down a little, and the conservation movement doing pretty well, this might be just the time for the parties concerned to take a new look at John Kenney's gift to Johns Hopkins.

If the appropriate decision-makers were to put on their boots and take a walk along the long wooded shoreline, perhaps surprising the heron on his snag, it might well bring them to their senses at last about the real significance of this big chunk of waterfront land.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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