Point's sale has residents worried

Potential buyer wants to build mansion on Severn River site

October 06, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

For years, residents on Riverview Avenue near Annapolis have enjoyed their very own Eden, 17 acres of sunny meadows and vine-tangled woods along the water that was more or less abandoned in the 1980s by the Catholic priests who once swam and picnicked there.

"So far, the property has remained pure," said Dick Morin, who lives down the street from the overgrown place, a Severn River landmark that many in the Annapolis area refer to as Priest Point.

Today, the Redemptorists of the State of Maryland, an order of priests who founded St. Mary's Parish in Annapolis, are poised to sell the tract to a buyer who wants to build a mansion on it.

Sale of the property, worth $1.3 million or more, could help the Catholic church raise much-needed funds for missions at home and abroad. But local residents say they fear that the transaction could dash their hopes of preserving the wildlife sanctuary.

"This is one of the last undeveloped pieces of land on Weems Creek and the Severn River," said Fred Kelly, a "riverkeeper" of the Severn who passes the point, with its towering oaks and chestnuts, on daily patrols. "It's a gorgeous location. ... And we are desperately trying to keep some open space on the water's edge."

The potential buyer has applied to the county for a variance to build the mansion, but Anne Arundel County planners are opposed to allowing residential construction on most of the land, which is zoned for open space. The county board of appeals will review the project Oct. 21.

Members of the Weems Creek Conservancy -- which is working with state and local officials to clean the waterway, and revitalize fragile grass and oyster populations -- are desperately trying to raise funds to purchase Priest Point, which is home to bald eagles, fox, river otter and flocks of birds.

They say that developing the site -- including removing trees and vines, as well as adding impervious surfaces such as walkways and roofs -- could increase the amount of sediment that runs into the Chesapeake Bay. Sediment chokes bay grasses, which are essential to crab and fish populations.

"We still have some hopes of buying the property," said Evan Belaga, an Annapolis resident and president of the Weems Creek group, which has been trying to purchase the site for almost two years.

But members of the tightly knit religious community, including Redemptorist priests at St. Mary's Parish, have refused to work with them, Belaga and other conservationists said. Although St. Mary's Parish doesn't own the site, local environmentalists and some parishioners are upset that local priests haven't done more to preserve the spot.

The Rev. Denis Sweeney, pastor of St. Mary's Parish, which includes St. Mary's elementary and high schools, said he can do nothing about the pending sale, which is being executed by the Redemptorists Provincial Residence in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"We are not passing the buck," Sweeney said. "I don't have any say in it. ... All of that is out of New York."

A spokesman for the Redemptorists in New York, the Rev. Francis Nelson, said the group has entered into a contract of sale with a Baltimore man. Nelson said the Redemptorists -- who take a vow of poverty, scholarly work and teaching -- have been trying to sell the point for more than a decade but that past contracts never resulted in a sale.

Nelson said the property was last used in the 1980s. The point, which the priests refer to as "the farm," was purchased by the Redemptorists in 1906 and used for outdoor and water recreation, he said. At one time, the property included a caretaker's house, pool, bathhouse and open-air dining pavilion. Priests and seminarians once traveled from St. Mary's Parish by launch for picnics at the point. But when parish life became too hectic and priests had less time to spend at the point, it was abandoned.

"It needs to be disposed of," said Nelson, who added that money raised from the sale of the land will go to Redemptorist projects in this country and abroad.

The entrance to the point is obscured by a jungle of brambles. Once on the property, which is close enough to U.S. 50 that the rush of traffic is audible, visitors are greeted by a verdant wall of vine-covered trees, bamboo and wildflowers. Along Weems Creek, tall wild grass gyrates in the afternoon breeze. Raccoon tracks cover the sandy beach along the Severn River.

"It's a nice sanctuary in the midst of all the traffic from Route 50 and the houses in all directions," said Don Baugh, vice president of education for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who lives on the Severn River and kayaks past the point almost every day. "There is a lot of wildlife and ducks in the winter. You see diving ducks and swans. There is a blue heron who acts as a sentinel."

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