Land trust, port protect Swan Creek

Conservation easement covers 115-acre property

`A major accomplishment'

Site envisioned as place for kids to study nature

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

Environmentalists have long eyed the peaceful, forested green space at the heart of Anne Arundel's most heavily industrialized area, worrying that it could be lost to development. Now the tract of more than 100 acres on the banks of the Patapsco River is a permanently protected part of the landscape on the Marley Neck peninsula.

In its first major acquisition, the North County Land Trust has secured a conservation easement on the Swan Creek site owned by the Maryland Port Administration, ensuring the preservation of the land, which contains wetlands and habitat for wildlife and waterfowl.

Officials with the 2-year-old trust -- created to preserve Swan Creek -- say that conservation of the 115-acre property in northeastern Anne Arundel is particularly important in an area that counts among its neighbors a power plant, an asphalt manufacturer and a medical waste incinerator just across the Baltimore line.

"Land conservation isn't just for wealthy communities to preserve horse farms," said trust secretary Rebecca Kolberg. "It can be valuable to working-class neighborhoods and working-class people who care about the land and can make it work."

Kolberg continued: "It's more than conserving woods and forest. It's also about conserving buffers for people's health and general well-being, and providing a buffer between industrial operations and the surrounding communities."

The North County Land Trust holds the conservation easement jointly with the Maryland Environmental Trust, a state preservation program that also assists local land trusts with property acquisitions. The Maryland Port Administration retains ownership of the land, but development on it is permanently restricted.

"They were like bulldogs," said state Del. Mary M. Rosso, referring to trust members' three-year effort to preserve Swan Creek. "It's a major accomplishment for this area to have something like that absolutely set in stone."

With the site safely under easement, the North County Land Trust hopes to make the site accessible to students doing nature studies.

On a tour of the property last year, the group spotted red-shouldered hawks, American black ducks and a heron.

The trust plans to establish volunteer teams to monitor the land on a long-term basis and is considering doing an inventory of native plants, a wildlife survey and water-quality testing.

"I see it as an opportunity for children in the area to have it as a scientific learning lab," said trust treasurer Marcia Drenzyk.

The groundwork for retaining Swan Creek as open space was laid almost 10 years ago when port officials began meeting with area residents to discuss plans for reopening a dredge disposal site adjacent to the Swan Creek wetlands. During discussions, the port offered to preserve the Swan Creek site as open space for the community.

There was no movement on the issue until 1999 when area residents were in the midst of a heated battle to block construction of a 61,000-seat auto racetrack near Swan Creek. When the developers proposed putting a parking lot on the land, track opponents reminded port officials of their offer.

Bureaucratic barriers

Drenzyk -- a leader in the successful fight against the racetrack -- said port officials explained that the main reason the Swan Creek easement had been delayed was the lack of a local land trust to work with the Maryland Environmental Trust on formalizing the commitment.

Under state law, the Maryland Environmental Trust could not hold the conservation easement on property owned by another state entity.

"We said, `Fine, that land is going to go into an easement and we're going to form a land trust,'" Drenzyk said.

Kolberg took the lead in researching how to create the North County Land Trust, with assistance from the Maryland Environmental Trust.

"We were a very green organization in more ways than one," Kolberg said. "It's time-consuming, but a person who's really committed can figure it out because there's a lot of good models out there."

With a board of directors and bylaws, the North County Land Trust became official in 2000 and began working out the details of the easement with the port, which was moving to reopen the dredge site.

Stewardship

"It's a good demonstration of the port's stewardship role regarding the Chesapeake Bay," said Richard L. Sheckles, director of planning and environment with the Maryland Port Administration. "The other choice for us would be to develop the property in some kind of industrial use related to some kind of maritime activity."

Trust officials had hoped to have the easement in place within a year, but aside from the routine bureaucratic slowdowns, there were delays associated with the port's dredge-disposal project on adjacent land, the details of which weren't worked out until June.

Sheckles said the port expects to begin the dredging operations by early 2004 with plans to reprocess the material so it can be used in bricks, road base material or a soil supplement.

In the past year, the port removed about 350 tons of debris from the site, including appliances, piles of concrete and portions of homes -- the remnants of a small community called Brandon Shores, built in the early 1940s.

With the Swan Creek property under its belt, the North County Land Trust is pursuing other conservation projects in the area.

"There has been a lot of W-3 [industrially zoned] land that's been funneled to North County," Drenzyk said.

"It's important that we be given some open-space areas that give us breathing room and places for the air to recover," Drenzyk said.

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