For the Davis family of Annapolis, the decision to develop Homeport, their waterfront farm, was gut-wrenching. But with suburban and commercial sprawl encroaching from all sides, selling their land to a developer seemed the best solution.
Environmentalists and some of the farm's neighbors disagreed. Conservationists, to no avail, offered $4.5 million for the historic property that once was part of a larger farm owned by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Anti-development activists hope that a legal technicality can scuttle a final permit for the Homeport project, which would include 30 houses and a park. They say they are optimistic the Davises can still preserve their 80 acres on Church Creek, a South River tributary.
"Homeport Farm is an absolutely unique property," said Drew Koslow, past president and board member of the South River Federation, which will fight the family's request at an administrative hearing Oct. 30. "It is the largest privately held, undeveloped property on the north shore of the South River."
The farm's history and its connection to several prominent Maryland families are significant. In 1839, the Carroll family, which had extensive land holdings in the Annapolis area, sold what is today the Homeport Farm property to Robert Welch, whose son established a medical practice there.
In 1867, the Welches sold the land, then known as Salem, to the Duvalls, descendants of an indentured Huguenot who arrived in Maryland in 1694.
Intense development along the county's 533 miles of waterfront has forced elected officials to reconsider how they use what is known as "growth allocation" under the state's 1984 Critical Area Act. Growth allocation represents a finite number of acres that can be developed within waterfront "resource conservation" areas.
Out of an original 918 acres countywide, Anne Arundel has just 39 acres of resource conservation area left for growth allocation projects. The county used most of its growth allocation for residential projects, including 18 acres for the Homeport project.
Opponents of the project say they wish that county officials had more thoroughly reviewed the Davis application. In a county where new waterfront homes can sell in the seven figures, the Davises would be allowed to subdivide the property into 31 lots.
More than half of the property -- about 66 acres -- is located within the critical area.
But because the Davises conserved other pieces of the farm and nearby family property, the county only needed to use 18 acres of its scarce growth allocation set-aside.
"The county is pushing for unjust enrichment for the Davises at the expense of our environment and our future," said County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, a Democrat who represents the Annapolis area and the area near Homeport Farm. "This is the very thing that the critical area law is supposed to prevent."
David M. Plott, attorney for the Davis family, says the family has worked hard with county officials to assure that the project will benefit the greater Annapolis community. He said the Davises went through all the proper channels to get the necessary approvals.
"This is a plan that a lot of people have spent a lot of time to accomplish," Plott said.
Council members voted unanimously to use growth allocation acres for the project in 1997. At the time, they believed that the public would be well-served by the project because it would include much-needed ball fields.
But in 1998, Critical Area Commission staff members warned the county that the project might not win approval from the 19-member panel because county code required that new construction occur 300 feet beyond the landward edge of tidal wetlands. The Homeport project includes six waterfront houses.
County officials pulled the project back and, in March 2000, County Executive Janet S. Owens introduced an amendment to the county code that provided legal room for the project without overstepping state law.
"I know that without your support we would be sunk," Dee Davis, a Davis family member by marriage, told Owens in a May 2000 letter, shortly after the council adopted a bill that amended the setback rule.
County officials haven't always backed the project.
In August 1996, a county planner recommended rejecting the Davises' development proposal because it called for construction in areas with highly-erodible soils.
But a few months after that planner died, her supervisors recommended approval of the project, later endorsed by the county's Planning Advisory Board.
Steven Cover, a former county planning officer who now works in Georgia, said he changed his mind because the Davis family offered to set aside land for baseball fields, plus $232,500 for to cover construction costs.
Informed that the plan for ball fields and cash had since been dropped, Cover said he was surprised that county officials would still allow the project to go forward. "Whoa, that's not good," he said.