Deal with union spares 1,200 marshy acres

December 24, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

A scenic patch of fields and marsh on one of Maryland's fragile coastal bays near Ocean City will be spared from residential and commercial development under a deal worked out with a Baltimore-based union pension fund, officials said yesterday.

Operating Engineers Local 37 Benefit Fund, stymied in its plans to develop a golf resort near Ocean City, has agreed to sell its 1,200 marshy acres on Assawoman Bay to Worcester County for use as a waterfront park and municipal golf course.

The fund will be paid $4 million for the land on the tip of St. Martin'sNeck in a four-way deal involving the county, Ocean City and the state, local officials said yesterday.

"It's a nice Christmas present," said Jeanne Lynch, a Worcester County commissioner who was elected two years ago in part because of her efforts to preserve the land from development.

"It's a great piece of property," said Dr. Torrey C. Brown, secretary of natural resources. He noted that the tract will be the largest publicly owned land on Maryland's ecologically sensitive inland bays separating Ocean City and Assateague Island from the mainland.

Union officials could not be reached yesterday for comment.

The pension fund, which provides retirement benefits for 3,000 union members, paid $3 million for the land five years ago. It proposed developing a resort called Lighthouse Sound, building homes, a golf course and a 250-room hotel on the land. But the project ran afoul of opposition from environmentalists and community groups, who feared that increasing development along the mainland shores of Assawoman, Isle of Wight and Sinepuxent bays threatened to destroy them as fertile spawning and nursery waters for fish and waterfowl.

The Worcester commissioners deadlocked over whether to approve the project, and the ensuing stalemate provided an opening for state and local officials to begin negotiations with the pension fund over buying the land for a park.

Under the deal struck on Tuesday, the cost of the land will be split, with the county paying $2 million, Ocean City $1 million and the state $1 million, officials said. With the state's Open Space funds for buying park land depleted, the money may have to be raised at least initially through bond issues.

For its help in buying the land, Ocean City will be given 150 to 200 acres for development of a municipal golf course, Ms. Lynch said.

"It will be an environmentally sensitive course," vowed Ms. Lynch.

Ocean City, which already operates one golf course on the mainland near U.S. 50, wanted another golf course to boost tourism in the off season, said Guy Ayres, the city attorney. "They're desirous of turning Ocean City and Worcester County into a golf-destination resort," Mr. Ayres said of local officials.

The rest of the land, nearly three-fourths of which is marsh or open water, will be used for picnicking, crabbing, horseback riding and other "passive" recreation, said Ms. Lynch.

The state also may turn over management of the adjoining Isle of Wight to the county, said Dr. Brown. The isle was the focus of controversy five years ago when entrepreneurs sought permission to build an outdoor music pavilion there. The state rejected the proposal amid concerns over traffic and the environment.

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