Education center-resort rising quietly at Elk Neck

Project: Questions raised over $30 million retreat in state park.

December 08, 2004|By David Nitkin and Rona Kobell | David Nitkin and Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Trucks rumble through the waterfront state park at the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay. Machines are digging drainage ponds and trenches for pipes. A 15,000- square-foot dining hall with a water view is rising amid the evergreens, its angled roofline - three stories tall at the peak - dominating the landscape.

A sports complex, aquatic center with whirlpool tubs, and a pier for powerboats and personal watercraft are under construction nearby.

As Maryland lawmakers and environmentalists fret over the Ehrlich administration's possible sale of protected land, a vivid example of a large-scale project undertaken by a wealthy businessman is under way on property that many thought would be preserved for future generations.

NorthBay center

On 98 acres of Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County, retirement home builder John C. Erickson is constructing NorthBay, a $30 million education center, camp and corporate retreat that is more resort than rustic. It is rising along a half-mile stretch of North East River beach, on property leased from the state for free.

The project, which broke ground in May, is being touted as a public-private partnership between the Erickson Foundation, a nonprofit created in 1998, and the state Department of Natural Resources. It is designed, in part, to teach sixth-graders the value of the bay.

But corporations and other groups will be allowed to use it as well. The foundation says it needs to collect $2 million to $3 million a year in fees to cover operating costs, though the project is not described as a moneymaking venture.

Planning has been in the works for years. The foundation searched for land and signed a lease to build within the park borders in 2002, during the Glendening administration. After Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was elected later that year, the plans went forward, with high-level administration officials supporting the project.

Detailed drawings for the upscale retreat, with dozens of buildings covering 126,000 square feet, were unveiled after Ehrlich took office. Under the current administration, the state granted permission for the Erickson Foundation to put some of the buildings on sensitive waterfront land.

State officials say the project is of great benefit to Maryland.

"It's a way for disadvantaged kids to learn about the Chesapeake Bay in a way they otherwise might not have," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. "The governor believes it was a great concept. He believes there's a lot of credit to go around, including to the Erickson Foundation and the previous administration."

Public policy issues

But the facility's approval has drawn criticism from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which says the state should adhere to the rules imposed on its citizens.

"You're talking about a permanent project that, once built, can't be changed. And once the infractions on Maryland's environment are done, that can't be changed," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Bay Foundation. "This was a place where the state should be setting the example. Our position was, if it had been private property, the project would not have been allowed as designed."

In the eyes of other critics, the project raises significant public policy questions, especially in light of recent revelations that the Ehrlich administration had prepared a list of land, including some in and around state parks, that could be sold to local governments or private developers.

The state should be in the business of preserving parks, they say, rather than allowing development in them.

"There should have been robust discussion with the public about whether there should be development at the state park, and whether or not other organizations should have the same opportunity to run a program at this park - or any park," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a conservation group.

`So much of a secret'

Neighbors of the park, at the end of a peninsula accessible by a narrow, two-lane road, say they were blindsided by the project. Several said they see parallels between NorthBay and the Ehrlich administration's aborted plan to sell 836 acres of protected forest in St. Mary's County to construction company owner Willard J. Hackerman.

In each case, they say, a wealthy businessman and regular campaign donor negotiated in private to gain access to publicly owned land, with no competitive bidding.

"It's all kept so much of a secret," said Billye Jo Jackson, a neighbor of the park who worries that the camp's plan to draw 50,000 gallons of water a day will sap the well she uses for her home. She says the start of construction seemed to be rushed this year, with drilling permits granted before she could seek a delay so water concerns could be studied.

The mission of the camp is also troubling to some, with its apparent emphasis on serving Christian and faith-based groups.

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