Chester River preserve

Easement: The owners of an Eastern Shore plantation will receive $8 million to give up the right to develop the land.

November 15, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

KINGSTOWN - Just east of this Queen Anne's County village, 5,000 acres of crop fields and woods stretch for more than two miles along the south shore of the Chester River. They are home to uncountable numbers of geese and ducks, a herd of deer so big that it takes 40 to 50 hunters to control it and bald eagles that soar in circles over a 90-acre lake.

Until recently, the land, known as Chino Farms, was ripe for development, with enough lots approved for 175 homes along the riverfront and 600 more in the interior. But state and federal agencies have put together more than $8 million to buy the development rights.

The Conservation Fund, which brokered the purchase, is to announce today that it has made final the deal for the largest single easement in Maryland history.

In Queen Anne's, where housing subdivisions seem to pop out of former cornfields daily, the Chino Farms easement "will forever provide wildlife habitat, protect wetlands and enhance water quality within the Chesapeake Bay watershed," said Patrick F. Noonan, chairman of the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit group that arranges land preservation deals.

Purchase of the easement is part of the fund's renewed concentration on Chesapeake Bay tributaries, said Jack Lynn, fund spokesman. "We're going to be working over the next decade with the state and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on properties on the Potomac, the Susquehanna and Wicomico," he said.

Purchase of the easement also marks a "significant achievement in terms of reaching" the goals of the renewed Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which calls for preserving 20 percent - about 1.4 million acres - of the land in the watershed by 2010, said Mike Nelson, an assistant secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources.

In addition to a waterfowl sanctuary on the 90-acre lake, the farm has 600 acres of forested wetlands known as Delmarva bays - dry in the winter and covered with water in spring and summer - and habitat for the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.

Nelson said the wetlands also provide habitat for several species of rare or endangered plants.

The Chester River is on the state list of impaired waterways, and preserving this much land on the waterfront "will go a long way to improving the water quality," said Andrew McCown, president of the Chester River Association.

"When you get something this huge, it makes a statement and people tend to follow," he said.

The farm is owned by Grassland Plantations Inc., a company formed by Harry Sears, son of the original owner, and his children to administer the property. Sears, who could not be reached, is "your ideal steward of the land," Nelson said, because of his conservation efforts.

He uses computerized sensors in farm machinery to determine the ratio of fertilizer to maximum crop yield, and slashed his fertilizer use. He also has taken nearly 500 acres out of production to create forests and grasslands that help prevent erosion, filter pollution from runoff and provide additional habitat for birds and animals.

"He's one of the top environmentalists around," said Tim Connelly, Maryland representative of the Conservation Fund.

As part of the easement deal, Sears will donate 30 acres of riverfront property to Queen Anne's County for a boat ramp and a small park near a county park. Local officials would have to buy two more parcels to connect the two parks, said Connelly.

"Sometimes it's hard to justify spending this much public money on land the public can't use, but at least we got some water access with this," he said.

During the growing season, the fields are filled with "typical rotation crops - corn, soybeans, peas and lettuce," said David M. Sutherland, a Conservation Fund vice president. A 230-acre swath of warm-season grasses seems to stretch forever near the Chester River.

Yesterday, the golden stalks waved in the slanting rays of the sun. In the spring, wildflowers make the meadow "a spectacle of color that changes every couple of weeks," said Connelly.

The grasses meet stands of oak, maple and beech trees with the last of their bright yellow, burnished orange and rust-colored leaves clinging to their branches. Leaves carpet the surface of the river near the shore, bobbing with the incoming tide.

Around a bend and downstream, the bridge that carries Route 213 into Chestertown can be seen. But the view upstream of forests and tall grasses is almost unbroken.

The boom of guns from Aberdeen Proving Ground reverberates up the river, punctuating the almost constant high-pitched eee-yonk, eee-yonk of geese drawn to the fields and the lake, which was created when Sears' father, who assembled the farm in the early 20th century, dammed Foreman Branch near its confluence with the Chester.

Yesterday, a doe rocketed out of the woods near the lake and across a field deep green with winter wheat, a large buck in chase.

The development pressures in Queen Anne's have grown stronger in recent years, said McCown, and "if we miss an opportunity to preserve a special place like this, we may never get another one."

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