Community activists benefit from tenacity, hard work

SACReD overcomes legal woes, achieves its purpose

August 01, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

On a bitterly cold January weekend three years ago, a small group of environmental activists huddled at the United Methodist Church Camp on Chalk Point in Shady Side. The agenda was as bleak as the setting.

The fledgling organization -- South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, or SACReD, campaigning to stop a developer from building 152 luxury houses on a 477-acre parcel known as Franklin Point, had been dealt two bad blows. The developer had lodged a $50 million libel lawsuit against them and the state Board of Public Works had approved the project despite the nearly certain environmental damage it would cause.

The group's president had resigned under the stress. And members had to determine whether the hardball tactics they had used to rally the community and pressure local officials had backfired; whether they had wasted their time; whether they had a future.

"It could have been enough to destroy us," recalled Brett Joseph, a SACReD founder and one of the three principals named in the suit Washington developer Dominic F. Antonelli filed against the group.

But it wasn't.

Bolstered by one another, cheered by new members who turned out at the camp, SACReD stalwarts picked up their signs and went on to win the libel suit, keep Franklin Point wild and succeed in numerous skirmishes with developers and local officials.

The group today is recognized as a well-organized and sophisticated community action group, a model for similar neighborhood organizations across the country. What began four years ago as a handful of people meeting in each other's dining rooms, has become a 340-member operation with a $4,000 budget, and the finesse to raise $20,000 in a pinch.

County Executive Janet S. Owens recently appointed several SACReD members to the Deale/Shady Side Small Area Planning Committee, a citizens' committee given the task of plotting growth in the area.

"I think they carry a great deal of clout," said Del. Virginia P. Clagett of West River. "Groups like this make an enormous difference in beating city hall. Time after time, groups like SACReD show that with tenaciousness, they can and will win. They are like bulldogs."

In the Franklin Point land battle, SACReD succeeded where neighborhood associations before them had fought for years but failed. But not everyone in south county appreciated the aggressive tactics that may have made the difference -- the bombardment of officials with letters and the edgy signs plastered all over south county.

Vernon R. Gingell, 79, a lifelong resident of Deale, says SACReD twisted the truth about Franklin Point. He chaired the county executive's citizens' group -- the South County Environmental Commission, which had approved Antonelli's plans.

SACReD, he said, was out of line posting billboards that read: "Meet the Monster that ate South County," and other signs at intersections and entrance ways to neighborhoods.

"They did all kinds of crazy things," he said. "They are aggressive, and I told the county that if they win, there will be hell to pay."

Aside from its controversial tactics, SACReD could credit its success to its detailed planning, organization and recruitment of members with distinct organizing skills.

"They came on with a great deal of talent in their midst, lawyers, scientists, public relations people," Clagett said.

In the early days of the Franklin Point battle, SACReD members begged people with experience in environmental law, zoning or public relations to join and volunteer.

"We just begged people to donate their time to us," said Mike Bevenour, the group's first president. "We had figured out that we couldn't spend our time fund raising to pay people to do these things; we needed people to donate their time to us."

They found lawyers, architects and a journalist who knew how to talk to the press. Bevenour and other leaders went into surrounding communities such as Columbia Beach and Cedar Hurst in search of others who would suffer if the development was built.

In addition, they carefully chose a name for their group to reflect their feelings about the land they were determined to protect.

"We wanted the words south and county in our name," recalled Bevenour, an environmental lawyer who now lives in Northern Virginia. "At first, we thought of SCARED, because we were scared of big development coming into our community. But when someone said `How about SACReD,' we all just looked at each other and said: `Yeah, that's it.' "

Finally, they researched other groups that had succeeded in stopping developers and studied their tactics and arguments.

In newspaper clippings, they found out about Richard Klein, a former director of Save Our Streams, who now runs a non-profit organization called Community and Environmental Defense Services in Maryland Line. He has worked on hundreds of projects across the country, including fights to limit riverboat gambling in the Midwest.

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