Conservationists in lonely fight to save 497 acres from bulldozer Bid-opening today for St. Mary's site

September 21, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

CALIFORNIA -- Jack F. Witten spreads his hands to indicate the trees around him, the Patuxent River beachfront before him and the acres of wild land he has just crossed to arrive at the grassy bluff where he stands.

"I can't imagine anybody thinking it's proper to turn a bulldozer loose in this place," says Mr. Witten, vice president of the Potomac River Association. His organization has fought to keep bulldozers off this St. Mary's County property before and is at it again, working against strong economic and political forces, not to mention time.

Today, on Long Island, N.Y., sealed bids are scheduled to be opened for the property known variously as Myrtle Point and Hanover Run: 497 acres, 211 of which make up one of the largest undeveloped waterfront tracts in the county.

Veteran St. Mary's County real estate broker Alan Brylawski of Long & Foster in Lexington Park -- one of the agencies that handled the property when it was on the market before -- estimates that it's worth $6 million to $8 million.

The Potomac River Association will not be among the bidders, but its lawyer says the group will challenge the bid process in court on grounds that it was not given timely information on the sale. The association also threatens to oppose the sale because no environmental impact statement has been filed.

The association -- which claims about 200 members in Maryland, Virginia and Washington -- hopes to stall the sale and muster a coalition of conservation groups and government agencies to buy the land.

At the moment, the group stands against the county commissioners, who would like to see the land developed, and the state Department of Natural Resources, which has so far expressed no interest in buying it as open space.

Grant Dehart, director of the state agency's Program Open Space, says it is "not our intention" to buy the land, chiefly because the previous landowner has already put in roads, a water tower and sewer lines, and because development is backed by the county.

"It's really nice to have something you can just look at," says County Commissioner W. Edward Bailey. "But you have to be able to afford to look at it."

The county can't, he says. Taking into account U.S. Navy property, state and church land, about half the land in St. Mary's is already untaxable, Mr. Bailey says. He estimates that if Myrtle Point were developed, the county could figure on collecting perhaps $1.5 million to $2 million more in property taxes, about 5 percent of the total collected last year.

He says the project could be a boon to local tourism, considering that the previous landowners proposed a hotel and conference center on the inland portion of the property.

This kind of talk rankles state Sen. Bernie Fowler. One of the strongest environmentalists in the General Assembly, the St. Mary's Democrat has joined the effort to protect Myrtle Point. "I hate to see us push economic development at the price of water quality," he says.

Over the past 26 years, the Potomac River Association has opposed several development proposals on Myrtle Point, including an oil refinery, port and galvanizing plant.

The most recent development proposal, called Hanover Run, was put forward by Rte. 347 Realty Corp. of Port Jefferson, N.Y., which owned the 497 acres. County Planning Director Jon Grimm says the current plan includes approval for 136 single-family house lots, a nine-hole golf course and 120 boat slips. He says no plans have been approved for the rest of the property.

The development bogged down in the legal troubles of 347 Realty President John McNamara. Last September, he pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges for stealing some $400 million from the General Motors Acceptance Corp. in a fraudulent car loan scheme, says Alan Vinegrad, assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. The federal government seized millions of dollars in McNamara property -- including Myrtle Point -- in several states.

The sale has been put off once before, but a spokeswoman for one of the firms handling the McNamara property marketing said late yesterday that bids on Hanover Run will be opened today.

Association members say that the fight has just begun, but even Mr. Fowler acknowledges that the conservationists face tough odds, in view of the improvements already made to the land. "Money talks," says Mr. Fowler, "and the Patuxent River is very silent, except when the wind blows across it."

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