National Harbor a threat to the Potomac

January 07, 1998|By ANDREW H. MACDONALD

LIKE MANY tourists and residents, I'm a fan of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. This relatively new development fits in well with the city's seaport history and bustling commercial downtown. The same cannot be said for National Harbor, the large resort and entertainment complex now being planned for a Potomac River shoreline site at the foot of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Oxon Hill in Prince George's County.

For the past 15 years, National Harbor's 537-acre proposed site, known as Smoot Cove, has repeatedly been the subject of ambitious developers' plans, including Port-America, a failed mostly residential development of the 1980s.

The supporters of this latest shoreline project, including Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, like to claim that because the cove is partly an artifact of sand and gravel mining earlier this century, the site's historic and natural resources are either not worth saving or that they can be replaced elsewhere. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Despite being located near the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant, this cove is a natural haven for fishermen, sailors, kayakers and more than 30 species of fish, including a number which migrate here from the Chesapeake Bay each spring to spawn. The bay supports a fabulous largemouth bass sport fishery as well; in 1987, scientists found that the concentration of herring larvae were among the highest on the Potomac.

False economy

Once this shoreline was on the brink of being saved, but then-Prince George's County Executive and now governor, Parris Glendening, opposed the purchase of several hundred acres of shoreline.

A surprising number of significant historic and natural landmarks surround the cove. Many such landmarks will be removed or adversely affected by the proposed development and its accompanying traffic and pollution.

Above the river, archaeologists have found the remains of a 17th-century Oxon Hill plantation manor and cemetery. Near the river, there is evidence of another colonial plantation home and numerous prehistoric Indian sites.

Local sites

Fort Foote, a Civil War fortification, sits above Rosier Bluff at the bay's lower end. The Oxon Hill Children's Farm (Cove Park), a turn-of-the-century Potomac River working farm operated today by the National Park Service, and Mount Welby, an early $H 19th-century manor house, overlook the Potomac above the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Butler House, a rare pre-Civil War farm house that was owned by freed slaves, is located near the area.

Smoot Cove is visible from the Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway and the Jones Point Lighthouse, a national landmark that is part of the Alexandria (Va.) Historic District. Dyke Marsh, a national wildlife refuge on the Virginia shoreline, is visible, too.

This development is within the 1,000-foot environmental shoreline buffer zone protected by the Maryland Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Act of 1984, but a loophole in the law permits the county to permit development there.

The current developer, Milton V. Peterson, of McLean, Va., plans to create a concrete bulkhead along about a mile of shoreline and to dredge the cove for a marina with as many as 500 slips. An environmental-impact study conducted in 1988 for PortAmerica indicated that that project (which included the removal of more than 200 acres of forest) would harm the bay's unique ecology.

The latest development, National Harbor, was quickly reviewed and then approved by both the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers this fall. The corps reissued the new developer permits that had been granted about 10 years ago for the PortAmerica project. They justify their action by noting that the cove's underwater grasses -- key fish habitat -- have declined over the past 10 years. To secure state approval, the developer has agreed to contribute $1 million to Maryland's tidal wetlands restoration fund.

Full steam ahead

The public has not had much of an opportunity to comment on this latest waterfront project. But it appears that few obstacles .. stand in the project's way, except the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal agency responsible for approving the final development plan. The commission is to ensure that historic preservation studies related to a 1987 memorandum of agreement between the commission, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Maryland Historical Trust are complete and adequate.

Tomorrow, National Harbor's developer will ask the commission to remove even more environmental restrictions. Mr. Peterson plans to ask the commission to delete, among other public recreational amenities, the 35-percent (minimum) shoreline open space requirement. Despite all the unanswered environmental concerns, the developer has already begun to prepare the site for construction.

Since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, millions of dollars have been spent to clean up the Potomac. Now, just as we are beginning to enjoy the recreational and ecological benefits of this restoration effort, some developers and politicians would rather cash-in on the restoration of the Potomac than protect the gains we've made so far.

It's now up to the National Capital Planning Commission and citizens to make sure that the Potomac's exceptional natural and historical resources are not a casualty of waterfront

development.

Andrew H. Macdonald holds a Ph.D. in geology and teaches at Johns Hopkins University's part-time graduate environmental studies program.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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