Group plans to hire staffer

Severn River unit, run by volunteers, seeks fund-raiser

Executive director's job

Environmentalists hope to gain more grants, structure

January 22, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

After 90 years of running on volunteer steam, Severn River Association is looking to hire its first paid staffer. The move is necessary as the organization - one of the oldest environmental groups in the country - seeks to capture more grant money and bring structure to its membership and education activities, said association President David Wallace.

"The primary reason is to establish a fund-raising mechanism and have cohesion from administration to administration," he said.

"Areas like getting out the newsletter and membership functions tend to wax and wane depending on the time the volunteer has to spend on them," said Wallace, a self-employed engineer. "I don't feel I've been as good at it as I could have been."

Members have reached a consensus after discussing the issue for the past year, and Wallace says he hopes an executive director will be on board officially by June, when the new president takes office.

While the goal of hiring an executive director is to allow volunteers to strengthen their efforts to protect the Severn River, Wallace acknowledges that the move signals a change for the association, founded in 1911 by 32 property owners on the shores of the Severn.

"I have come up through the volunteer ranks, and there's a certain purity to volunteer organizations," he said. "But there's a heavy price to pay in lack of effectiveness.

"We're up against professionals from every aspect - lawyers, developers, businesspeople - trying to do what they want to do," Wallace said. "I don't think we should shy away from the fact that we can be as professional as they are."

Wallace's pick for the $40,000 executive director position is Fred Kelly, a semiretired environmental lawyer who was the first staff attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in the early 1970s. Kelly said he has offered to work without pay for a few months until he raises enough grant money to cover his salary.

The Severn River Association must change its constitution to create the executive director position, and two-thirds of the association's board must approve Wallace's choice.

"I anticipate doing it maybe for a year or two, then getting somebody in who can continue," Kelly said. "The idea is to get a cycle of grant money coming in, with paid staff constantly applying for grants and raising money."

Kelly, who lives in Epping Forest, has started pursuing money and is preparing an application for a $100,000 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant.

"There's a lot of available money," he said.

He plans to start looking for it in his watershed.

"There's a lot of people on the Severn who have a lot of money," Kelly said. "I'm a waterfront property owner, and nobody has ever asked me for any kind of support."

By securing more grant money, he figures the association will be able to take the lead on more projects, such as the Howard's Branch wetlands restoration in Crownsville, built and designed last year by Wallace and restoration ecologist Keith Underwood. Most of the funding for the $336,000 effort was from two $150,000 grants - one from the Maryland Department of the Environment and one from Anne Arundel County.

"The stream restoration work that Keith Underwood is doing is so cutting-edge," Kelly said, "and it's the kind of new stuff we need to be doing around here."

He said the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies have begun to funnel more money to local governments and community-based programs to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In August, the EPA awarded $1.5 million in grants through its Small Watershed Grants Program to 59 environmental groups and local governments in the bay's watershed. Kelly also plans to approach corporations and private foundations for donations.

Competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money is probably not what the founders of the Severn River Association envisioned when they started the group. Their original purpose was to protect and promote fish and game and to develop reasonable means of public access to the river.

Over the decades, the association has worked to stop or lessen other threats to the river, including pollution, erosion and development. The group reviews zoning decisions, testifies on environmental legislation and monitors water quality in swimming areas.

The association has about 400 members, including representatives from 60 community associations.

Pat Munoz, director of the River Network, said that during the past decade she has seen an increase in all-volunteer river conservation groups deciding to hire staff. The nonprofit network advises river conservation groups on making the transition and awards small grants.

"Many groups start out because one person has the passion and the motivation to get something started, but volunteers do come and go, and they burn out," Munoz said.

She said the Severn River Association is unusual for having survived in an all-volunteer form for so long. "They've got a long history of volunteerism," Munoz said, "but making this step is a really important one."

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