Owens insider loses place in background

Land deal focuses attention on man who relishes private role

September 05, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

There isn't much Billy Chaney wouldn't do for his childhood pal, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens. But the lanky, drawling, chain-smoking South County gentleman farmer drew the line when she asked him to say a word for her at a meeting at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center near Edgewater.

Chaney, one of Owens' most trusted advisers, offered to sit in the audience, listen carefully and take copious notes at the event in the spring of 1999, when he was briefly on the county payroll.

But get up and address the group, if only to pass along greetings from Owens? No way, no how.

"He just wouldn't do it," she recalled. "He's very shy."

William Franklin Chaney is so shy that he avoids even good press - such as the fact that he put up $1,000 to help find vandals who defaced a statue of the late Aris T. Allen, a prominent black Annapolis physician and legislator. Chaney didn't want to be identified, but word leaked out.

So Chaney, 54, found it doubly painful to be thrust into the spotlight in recent newspaper articles about the county's transfer of 16 acres to the Old South Country Club, which he helped develop. County officials say the move last year corrected a 9-year-old drafting error that inadvertently gave the county the floodplain, but some members of the County Council suggested favoritism because of Chaney's ties to Owens.

"If my name is never again in the paper, I certainly would be happy," Chaney said last week in an interview he granted reluctantly and only on the condition that he not be photographed. "I'm a private person. I like to be in the background."

He has made himself at home in the background since Owens was elected in 1998. When the County Council meets, odds are that Chaney is listening with Owens in her office. When an important bill is pending, council members often get a visit from Chaney, which they know is the same as if Owens stopped by.

Chaney said he has no personal stake in the affairs of the county - other than perhaps his desire to see more farmland preserved. And he and Owens agree that she considers his advice, then often does the opposite. But she said she values his input, especially on money matters.

"I've always known I could trust that Billy would tell me what he thought," she said. "He would never intentionally mislead me. We're like brother and sister."

Chaney may be shy, but he's not timid.

A millionaire who traces his roots to the Maryland Calverts and Gen. Robert E. Lee, he is such a Civil War devotee that he erected a statue of a Confederate soldier in the town of Lothian last year. He's planning a bigger monument to Lee and a museum on a 100-acre farm he bought near the Antietam battlefield in Washington County.

A traditionalist who seems plucked from a bygone era, he kicks men who swear in front of women, as Owens spokesman Andrew C. Carpenter found out after mildly cursing one night at a restaurant.

And despite his unflinching allegiance to Owens, Anne Arundel's first female county executive, he left the Episcopal Church a couple of years ago to start his own church, partly because he objected to the ordination of women.

Those who know Chaney see a common thread in just about everything he does.

"It's all a sense of public duty," said Edward O. Wayson Jr., an Annapolis lawyer and member of another prominent South County clan. "It shows in his interest in historical events and how he pictures what South County should be and how he commits himself to help the county executive."

Like many ancestors before him, Chaney lives at Lothian, the brick Georgian family homestead built in 1801 that gave its name to the surrounding area. The grounds cover 120 acres, most leased to area farmers.

His home's walls fairly throb with history. Images of Lee peer down on almost every room, and there are framed letters of Lee and George Washington.

Though Chaney is hardly trigger-happy - "I couldn't shoot a deer if it was attacking me, probably," he said - he displays a small armory of Civil War weapons used by both sides.

Chaney was raised on another family property nearby. He remembers the days when one could walk two miles down the road past tobacco fields and not see a car. For fun, kids swung from vines into ponds in summer and went sledding in winter.

Another popular destination was the Chaney house on Greenock Road, with its swimming pool out back. It was there that Chaney and Owens got to know each other. They became good friends, even if she didn't share his obsession with baseball cards, and he didn't think much of dancing at the Deale Teen Club on Friday nights.

Chaney married his high school sweetheart, Patrice, at 18 and briefly attended the University of Maryland. Then he went to work for Chaney Enterprises, the concrete business begun by his father, Eugene.

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