Salvaging an urban refuge Wildlife: Residents of South Baltimore are encouraging the Port Authority to turn a Patapsco River inlet into a nature preserve.

June 10, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Heather Dewar contributed to the reporting of this article.

Frank Wisniewski, a mailman, has his head in a fox hole when the reeds behind him move. "It's a beaver!" he says. "And a beaver hut!" Soon Wisniewski spots other treasures in the marsh: canvas back ducks, great blue heron, an 18-inch-long turtle.

"I felt like Marco Polo when I found this place," says Wisniewski, 47. "All these years I've lived in Baltimore City, and these animals were right here in my neighborhood."

Wisniewski's discovery of the relatively unspoiled Masonville Cove, a Patapsco River inlet in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Fairfield, has touched off new interest in a fenced-off area that few city residents knew existed. This spring, Baltimoreans from Cherry Hill to Curtis Bay have slithered through the holes in the chain link and trespassed on this accidental, 500-acre wildlife refuge.

The visitors, many of them children, have left so impressed that a coalition of community groups and businesses is pushing the property's owner, the Maryland Port Administration, to put aside its plans to develop the parcel. According to a draft of the coalition's written proposal, residents want to turn the land, a rare bit of open space along an industry-dominated waterfront, into a nature preserve.

"We here in Brooklyn and Curtis Bay are desperate for access to nature and to the water," says the Rev. Richard W. Andrews, pastor at the Brooklyn United Methodist Church, and a leading advocate for the park proposal. "Over the years, private companies have gobbled up our waterfront land. This is about all have left."

Only a few sidewalks remain from Masonville, the 1890s railroad community that once stood at the cove's edge across the water from Fort McHenry. The Harbor Tunnel Thruway obliterated the last few buildings of Masonville in 1957.

The port gained control of the land around the cove, and briefly contemplated building a container terminal there in the 1970s. The area was used for disposal of dredge material for a time, but the port has ignored the area in recent decades. Humanity's disinterest cleared the way for an explosion of wildlife.

Last spring, Wisniewski, an inveterate walker, was strolling down Frankfurst Avenue when he decided, on a lark, to see what was behind the fence and brush. He liked the area so much that he returned with his wife and six children for the Fourth of July. "We had front row seats for the fireworks," he says. "There wasn't anyone else here."

Word of Wisniewski's wildlife sightings blew through Brooklyn like a breeze off the Patapsco. Paula Myers, a fifth-grade teacher at Curtis Bay Elementary, added a lesson on the cove to her unit on the Chesapeake. In March, the Brooklyn 4-H Ecology Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sponsored a boat trip for children who wanted to see the cove. Ossie Meyn, an EPA engineer, came from Washington to walk around the area with Wisniewski.

"Frank had a rapport with the foxes," she says. "He knew where they were. They almost seemed to recognize him."

Port administration officials have not said whether they would support the park idea. Linda Jordan, a port spokeswoman, said the MPA would like to preserve part of the cove area. But the

port's priority is the installation of a pair of "roll-on-roll-off" auto storage and detailing operations for car shipping there -- one in the next year or so, and another in the next decade.

But pressure on the port to relent is increasing. The coalition, known as the Community Environmental Partnership, has begun distributing its written proposal for an "Urban Wildlife Education Center," which would be run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. When U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest visited the neighborhood earlier this spring, Millennium Inorganic Chemicals executive Paul Gartelmann, who is a bird watcher, won a promise from the congressman to block port development. "My goal is to ensure that the entire parcel stays natural," Gilchrest said.

Gilchrest said he would ask the port administration to swap the Masonville Cove tract for land elsewhere on the peninsula. "They call me all the time, and they're desperate for federal funds," he said with a grin, "so it's democracy in action."

Such talk, however, does not reassure Wisniewski, a Curtis Bay native who remembers playing in his neighborhood's woods before they were scarred by illegal dumping. When the mailman takes visitors around the cove, he always points bitterly to a gravel pit to the west, and a scrap metal firm and the car shipping terminal to the east.

"It's like when you promise not to eat chocolate for Lent, but you can't help yourself," he says. "Open land like this is chocolate at Lent for the port and the industries."

In recent months, Wisniewski has watched with growing anger as the port administration slowly drains a rainwater marsh on the eastern side of the land to make way for part of the car facility. The cove's new visibility in the neighborhood also seems to have prompted an increase of illegal dumping of trash and railroad ties near the marsh.

Last summer, five pairs of swans made their home around Masonville Cove, Wisniewski says. This year, they have not been back.

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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