A Delaware company wants to mine sand and gravel on a parcel of farmland and forest along Marshyhope Creek on Maryland's Eastern Shore - a proposal that is raising alarm among conservationists who fear the operation will destroy rare wetlands, harm endangered species and ruin bird habitat.
The Horsey Family LLC is asking Dorchester County this week for a zoning exception so it can excavate soil, sand and gravel from the property and create an "open-water lake."
Workers would then float a hydraulic dredge into the lake and extract the remaining mineral resources, according to an application filed with the county last month.
The Horseys' attorney, William "Sandy" McAllister Jr., said the mining work would provide construction material to fuel the state's building boom. He says the family has been in the sand and gravel business for two generations and will be "just as careful and sensitive in this case as they always are."
But environmentalists are worried that the operation would destroy a diverse ecosystem of amphibians, birds and wetlands in one of the Shore's most pristine forests.
"It's really pretty shocking, with respect to the potential impact on a whole myriad of resources that are on that property," said Liz Zucker, director of the Nature Conservancy's Eastern Shore Project.
Ecologists with the state Department of Natural Resources are also concerned because the area is habitat for the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.
County officials, too, have questioned whether the property - a 392-acre tract east of Cambridge, near where Marshyhope Creek meets the Nanticoke River - is suitable for an industrial operation. More than half of the land is in the state's Critical Area, protected because of its proximity to a Chesapeake Bay tributary.
"I just think it's a terrible waste of our land," said County Councilwoman Effie Elzey. "In the middle of the Critical Area is going to be a hole in the ground. It may mean income now, but for generations to come, it will be worthless land."
The county Board of Appeals is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter Thursday. If the plan is approved, the Horseys would also need a surface-mining permit from the state Department of the Environment.
For natural resources officials and environmental groups, the biggest concern is that the open-water pit would be just 25 feet from a very rare wetland ecosystem known as Wades Savanna. It is the only known wetland of its kind in Maryland and one of only seven in the world.
In a letter to Dorchester County officials last week, DNR ecologist Scott A. Smith wrote that the operation "will severely impact the hydrology of Wades Savanna and result in the loss of this globally unique wetland community."
McAllister said environmental concerns about the Horsey proposal are unfounded. "We're not excavating wetlands," he said. "We're avoiding wetlands."
McAllister said much of the property outside the pit would remain undisturbed. He said there was a smaller gravel operation on the property many years ago.
The Nature Conservancy began focusing on the Marshyhope/Nanticoke area nearly 20 years ago because of its ecological diversity. The Virginia-based group now owns more than 1,000 acres there and has helped many local landowners protect their property through conservation easements. Among the protected lands is the Henson Scout Reservation, where Maryland Boy Scouts have been canoeing and kayaking since 1965.
Because of those efforts, the area around the Horsey property is devoid of the development that is spreading across the Shore. A visitor can encounter river otters, bald eagles and bullfrogs. A few farmhouses sit among thick pine forests.
"That part of the Nanticoke is so pristine," said Judith Stribling, a Salisbury University ecologist. "One thing we have been really proud of is how well-protected it's been."
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy have also expressed concern about the project.
Ray Teat, the Boy Scouts' director of support services, said he, too, is worried about the Wades Savanna. But his biggest concern is safety; the project would come within 50 feet of an area used year-round for Scouts. "We would have to move our whole camping operation, and that's not an option for us," he said.
Both Teat and Zucker said their groups tried to purchase the property from its previous owner. But the farmer sold to the Horseys in spring 2006 for $4.5 million.
Two years ago, the Horseys partnered with David Sutherland and his land-preservation company, the U.S. Land Alliance, to buy a property known as the Kudner farm in Grasonville for $20 million. Last year, U.S. Land Alliance sold a 271-acre piece of the farm to the state and Queen Anne's County for $5 million. The deal generated controversy because the price was higher than two state appraisals and because Sutherland, who used to work for a nonprofit land-conservation group, had served on Gov. Martin O'Malley's transition team.
Though Sutherland told The Sun last year that he was working with the Horseys on the Marshyhope property, McAllister said Sutherland is "absolutely, unequivocally" not involved now.
James Hilger, who grew up on land next to the Marshyhope property, remembers fishing for largemouth bass and catching bullfrogs. Hilger, an engineer at Fort Belvoir, Va., has nearly finished building his dream house on his family's property and was planning to move there full time. He just installed new windows; now, he fears his view will be of 300 trucks a day.
"We've put our life savings into building this house. Now it's sort of like, `What do we do now?'" he said. "If we can't stand to live there, nobody else is going to want it, either."