Md. sues on plan for farm on Shore Group had decided to allow development of protected land

July 10, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Maryland's attorney general sued a distinguished national historic preservation organization yesterday, challenging the group's decision to allow development of a protected 160-acre Eastern Shore farm as a move that undermined state efforts to preserve open space.

The lawsuit, filed by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. in Talbot County Circuit Court in Easton, names the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Washington developer Patrice Miller who, with her husband, Herbert, purchased the farm known as Myrtle Grove in 1989.

The property had been preserved in 1975 under an easement donated by its former owner, Margaret Donoho. After Donoho died in 1989, her family sold it to the Millers who persuaded the trust in 1994 to allow them to create a small subdivision on most of the property.

"If someone donates their property for the express purpose of ensuring it will be preserved, it's a violation of the new owners to make a side deal to undermine that purpose," Curran said in a statement released yesterday. The decision by the trust had touched off protest from Eastern Shore preservationists and Donoho's family, prompting the trust to retract its decision and acknowledge that it had made "a serious mistake" in allowing development of the lush, waterfront Myrtle Grove at the confluence of the Miles River and Goldsborough Creek.

The trust faces a separate breach-of-agreement lawsuit by the developers in D.C. Superior Court, with a hearing scheduled for next week.

Yesterday, trust president Richard Moe endorsed Curran's lawsuit, saying:

"We are determined that this property will not be subdivided," Moe said. "It says that these easements will be secure in the future, and that they are a very important tool for protecting open space. It's a signal, a very important issue beyond Myrtle Grove."

The state's lawsuit caught the Millers' attorney, former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, by surprise. Tydings said he had hoped to meet with Curran to explain the development plan for Myrtle Grove before the lawsuit.

'Easy issue to demagogue'

"It's an easy issue to demagogue," Tydings said. "And an easy issue to get emotional about if you don't have the facts. The uniform conservation easement law on the books now says the holders can amend it if it's necessary."

The Millers bought the land in 1989 for $3 million and approached the trust in 1994 to allow them to amend the easement and to develop eight residential lots. The trust amended the easement in return for $45,000 and an easement on 25 acres adjacent to Myrtle Grove which the Millers also owned.

Despite the trust's reversal of its decision, state officials and preservationists -- and many landowners who have donated easements -- still say they are afraid the original action could weaken easements as a means to protect open space from development.

"The action by the National Trust was unheard of, but it's nice that the attorney general is driving home the message that easements can't be changed and that they remain perpetual," said John C. Bernstein, director of the Maryland Environmental Trust, a state agency that oversees land preservation efforts.

About 7,500 acres have been donated into state easements in Talbot County, and Bernstein said his agency has received numerous calls from landowners there concerned about their easements.

The controversy comes at a time when easements are being widely used to preserve land in exchange for payments and state and federal tax breaks.

About 180,000 acres in Maryland are protected, and broad efforts persist to fund the enrollment of more land -- through Rural Legacy programs, farmland preservation and a $200 million federal push that started last year to preserve open space around the Chesapeake Bay.

State's action lauded

Tom Stohlman, chairman of the Talbot County Historic Preservation Commission, praised the state's lawsuit yesterday.

"I'm happy with what the attorney general is doing because we felt that the easement was a sacred instrument and couldn't be violated, and they were taking the very essence of the easement and violating it," Stohlman said.

John Griffen, Donoho's grandson, said yesterday he was delighted by Curran's action.

"Our family couldn't be happier," Griffen said. "The attorney general did the right thing and acted to protect the principle of easements."

"We love the place, and our grandmother thought she did the right thing by giving the land to an easement. It was very important to make a stand."

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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