State to pay $25 million to preserve riverfront land Glendening signs deal to buy 1,850-acre tract

August 21, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF Sun Staff Writer William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has signed a deal to buy 1,850 acres of prime forest land along the Potomac riverfront, virtually ensuring that the controversial Chapman's Landing development will not be built on the site of an 18th-century Charles County plantation.

Glendening announced yesterday that the state will pay $25 million for the land, allowing commercial development to go forward on 50 acres of the parcel near a regional airport, but preserving the most scenic and sensitive portion for wildlife and recreation.

State negotiators also brokered a deal between developer Legend Properties Inc. and environmentalists, who will have a one-year option to buy the remaining 375 acres of the 2,225-acre waterfront tract.

The deal, in the works for at least eight months, solidifies the governor's already strong support among environmentalists who have been fighting the proposed development since the late 1980s. His likely gubernatorial opponentthis fall, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, has a weaker environmental record.

In recent weeks, Glendening has made a series of moves to spend state money on environmentally sensitive lands.

In Western Maryland, state officials have been negotiating the purchase of Deep Creek Lake and 65 miles of surrounding land since June, when the lake's owner, GPU Inc., put the property and its hydroelectric dam up for sale. Earlier this month, with the help of the state, Howard County purchased the 300-acre Smith farm in the heart of Columbia for $10.7 million so that it can become a county park.

Environmentalists praised Glendening's latest effort, but warned that development could still go forward on the 375-acre tract if Legend and the non-profit Conservation Fund cannot agree on a price, estimated to be in the $2 million to $4 million range.

"We appreciate what Gov. Glendening has done," said Joy Oakes, coordinator of Save Chapman's Forest, the environmental coalition that has fought the development. "But the real news here is that we've still got a big challenge in front of us. Chapman's Forest could still be developed."

"The ball is now in the environmentalists' court," said Edward F. Podboy, Legend's chief executive officer. "It'll be interesting to see if they can follow through."

Standing near the veranda of Mt. Aventine, the property's pre-Civil War plantation house overlooking the Potomac, Glendening called the agreement "a significant step forward to protect our environment.

"It is almost a miracle that this great manor house and these magnificent grounds will be protected," Glendening said. Developers had planned to build a 12,000-resident city, with 4,600 homes, shops and offices on the stream-laced property, a favorite bass-fishing nook and a haven for nesting bald eagles and 36 varieties of endangered plants.

The project was favored by Charles County commissioners, eager for the jobs and tax dollars it would bring, and Glendening ignored environmentalists' pleas to block the development when first took office in 1995. But over the past year, the governor has become a staunch opponent of the development, first winning the General Assembly's endorsement of $15 million worth of appropriations to buy as much of the land as possible and then, in April, moving to begin a court battle to condemn the property.

Some critics have accused Glendening of pandering to environmentalists in an election year. Sauerbrey declined to comment, saying she did not know enough about the deal. Glendening said yesterday that his change in views reflected an evolution, not a revolution.

"We were sympathetic to a developer who followed the rules, but the rules have changed since then," the governor said, citing his administration's Smart Growth program to channel development into certain areas and its Rural Legacy program to purchase farmland threatened by development. "Something that was approved a long time ago, but not developed, was now in a new climate."

Even Charles County officials acknowledged yesterday that the Chapman's Landing project no longer seemed to fit Southern Maryland's current political mood.

"As the county develops more, you have more and more people in a dense area," said County Commission President Murray Levy. The decision not to build Chapman's Landing represents a huge tax loss for Charles County, said Eugene R. Lynch, state Secretary of General Services, who helped negotiate the deal.

"It's not even close," Lynch said, "but they recognized the balance of the controversy here and the need to do what could be done." The setting aside of a small parcel for commercial development was crucial to local officials' support, Lynch said.

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