Ilia J. Fehrer, 80

An environmentalist who worked for responsible development and land preservation in Worcester County

"She saw the beauty of the ... Shore, and this became her life's work and she stuck with it."

July 20, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Ilia J. Fehrer, a Lower Eastern Shore environmentalist who worked tirelessly for the preservation of the Pocomoke River and Nassawango Creek and was a co-founder with her husband of the Worcester Environmental Trust, died Tuesday of cancer at her Salisbury home. She was 80.

"Ilia Fehrer will be talked about for a long time to come. She and her husband have left their mark and a legacy, and they did it with grace," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrist, whose district includes the Eastern Shore.

"She saw the beauty of the Eastern Shore, and this became her life's work and she stuck with it. And she never expected awards or recognition for what she and her husband accomplished," he said.

Born Ilia J. Leonard in Washington, she lived on a farm in northern Baltimore County near the Pennsylvania line before moving to Baltimore in 1942.

After graduating from city public schools, she earned a bachelor's degree in 1948 from what is now Towson University and began teaching in Baltimore elementary schools.

She was married in 1948 to Joseph W. Fehrer, who was chief of the real estate division for the Baltimore and Washington districts of the Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1967, after transferring to the National Park Service where he was chief of land acquisition, he moved his family to Snow Hill.

Mr. Fehrer, who died last year, was in charge of assembling the properties that became the Assateague Island National Seashore.

With her husband, Mrs. Fehrer enjoyed exploring the region's waterways by canoe. In 1972, they became alarmed when extensive rezoning proposed in Worcester County raised a variety of environmental issues.

Developers were proposing to build Harbour Town, a 3,300-acre resort community along Chincoteague Bay, which was to be the "The Hilton Head of the North."

The Fehrers established the Worcester Environmental Trust that resulted in approval for the project eventually being overturned in state appellate courts.

But in the early 1970s, not everyone welcomed the efforts of the Fehrers, who were considered by many to be interfering outlanders.

"By consensus, they are Worcester County's lone `environmentalists,' a word variously spoken here with condescension, bitterness, smugness or befuddlement -- never matter-of-factly," The Sun reported in 1978.

"Ilia was a magnificent woman. A stalwart. She was demure, but she spoke up. And today we realize what she accomplished," said Ajax Eastman, a longtime friend, environmental activist and former president of the Maryland Conservation Council.

"The most important thing she did were those endless hours she sat listening to the Worcester County commissioners and taking notes," said Ron Cascio, an environmental activist who designs and builds green developments. "They knew she was there, and they knew she would go home and write letters, and that phone calls would be made. That was her greatest achievement, the endless hours of watchdogging."

Mr. Cascio called her "our environmental conscience." He said that "Worcester County wouldn't be as nice had it not been for Ilia and Joe."

He added: "Thank God for that woman. When it comes to land use and preservation issues, no one can hold her torch."

Nearly 20 years ago, she began voicing concern over water pollution made up of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that rain washed off farms into coastal bays. The nutrients caused algae blooms, depleting oxygen in the water and killing aquatic life.

Through her efforts, the Pocomoke River was designated a Wild and Scenic River, and she was also successful in establishing a water quality testing program for the river. She worked diligently until the end of her life to help preserve Assateague Island and the coastal bays.

Through her consistent efforts and hard work, more than 41,000 acres in southern Worcester County have been permanently preserved.

"The environmental movement owes much to Judy Johnson, who died earlier this year, Ilia Fehrer and Ajax Eastman. They were the vanguard of the environmental movement here before there was one," said Tom Horton, former Sun environmental columnist and author.

"For an environmental reporter, the first stop on the Eastern Shore was Ilia's home in Snow Hill. It was a pleasant place to spend a few hours talking about issues," Mr. Horton said. "Ilia was one of a kind, and her death marks the passing of an era."

Even though Mrs. Fehrer moved to a Salisbury retirement community in 2004 and was largely retired, she continued to maintain her environmental activism by writing to federal, state and local officials, said a son, Joseph W. Fehrer Jr. of Snow Hill, who is land manager of the Nature Conservancy's Nassawango Creek Preserve.

"I personally witnessed the difference two people can make," he said.

Mrs. Fehrer was a communicant of St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church, 514 Camden Ave., Salisbury, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Also surviving are two other sons, Damien C. Fehrer of Farmville, Va., and Douglas G. Fehrer of Fairfax, Va.; four daughters, Christa Fehrer of Florence, Mont., Celeste Bunting of Salisbury, Melissa Fehrer of Snow Hill and Michele Fehrer of Buckeye, W.Va.; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Another son, John N. Fehrer, died in 1976.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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