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Board of Public Works Approves Major Land Purchase Near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
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by Lisa M. Mayo | 2007

Treasured refuge to be buffered by lands purchased by the state.

On November 6, 2006—one day before the governor’s race was to be decided at the polls—then-Governor Robert Ehrlich, Jr. announced that the state of Maryland planned to spend $10 million to purchase over 700 acres of the 1,072-acre Blackwater Resort development land, which sat upstream from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

As was reported in the spring 2006 issue of Chesapeake, developer Duane Zentgraf had proposed a mega-development project approximately two miles from the nationally renowned Blackwater NWR, near Cambridge, Maryland, which is located in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore. The original plan was for 3,200 single-family and multifamily homes, a 100-room hotel/conference center, a golf course, and a retail center on what is now farmland. Within the project zone were over 300 acres of “Critical Area” land near the Little Blackwater River, which flows directly into Blackwater NWR and eventually into  the Chesapeake Bay. The “Critical Area” included a designated “Resource Conservation Area” and “Habitat Protection Areas,” and was located in a region known for frequent flooding and poorly draining soils.

 

An Election Eve Deal

Throughout the Blackwater Resort controversy, Gov. Ehrlich’s spokesman had repeatedly stated that the governor believed the Blackwater Resort development project was a local matter that did not require his intervention. During this same time, gubernatorial candidate Martin O’Malley had disagreed with Ehrlich, stating that he believed the state should offer to buy a portion of the land, and this concern eventually took the form of a letter sent by O’Malley and former Maryland governor Harry Hughes to Ehrlich, urging him to change his mind and strike a deal with the developer to buy the majority of the land using money from the state’s Program Open Space preservation fund. O’Malley’s position was supported by thousands of citizens who had signed a Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) petition urging the governor to protect the Refuge and farmland. Calls for Ehrlich to protect the land appeared to go unheeded, until suddenly on the Monday before Election Day, it was announced at a hastily arranged press conference that a deal had been reached between the state and the developer. The CBF was not invited to the press event, but local Republican politicians were invited, including Eastern Shore State Senator Richard Colburn (R-37), who was running for reelection.  He  had once vehemently opposed any efforts by the state to intervene, but  suddenly appeared to undergo a miraculous “green conversion” as the election neared. One politician who was conspicuously absent from the staged event was Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest, who represents the district that includes Blackwater Refuge and who, along with O’Malley, had publicly supported the campaign to protect the Refuge and farmland.

After the November 2006 elections, Governor O’Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot joined Treasurer Nancy Kopp as members of the Maryland Board of Public Works. On April 18, 2007, this  board unanimously approved an agreement under which the state will buy 728 acres of the Blackwater Resort land at a cost of $10.3 million, and developer  Zentgraf will retain 328 acres, on which will be constructed an adult community of approximately 675 houses, away from the banks of the Little Blackwater River and closer to the Cambridge town center.

Upon passage, Governor O’Malley stated, “The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding lands are a national and a state treasure, and I am proud to be able to protect this critical land for future generations. This transaction demonstrates how diverse interests, when determined, can work together to preserve and protect our natural resources.”

Kim Coble, Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation—which skillfully led the public campaign to oppose the project—expressed her approval: “We applaud the O’Malley Administration for negotiating a settlement that allows for development to occur that is limited in size and scope; farming to continue in a region that has a strong agricultural community; and the environment and water quality to be protected. Truly, this is a win-win outcome for all.”

 

Plans for Land Restoration

According to reports from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the developer of the acreage on which the adult community will be built will employ bio-retention and other best management practices used for storm water control.

In addition, the developer has agreed to contribute over $1.9 million for a major restoration project on the 728 acres purchased by the state. The restoration plan will be devised by the Maryland DNR and the Dorchester County Soil Conservation District, and will be reviewed by a task force comprised of natural resource professionals as well as non-governmental representatives from groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited.

The Maryland DNR stated that, “The restoration will provide for substantial water quality improvements through riparian forest buffer and wetland establishment, creation of diverse wildlife habitats, and implementation of state-of-the-art agricultural best management practices.”

According to Kevin Smith of the DNR’s Watershed Services, the purchased land will be part of the Chesapeake Forest Lands Complex and will be maintained by revenue generated from lands within that complex. Smith also reported that a segment of the 728 acres will be preserved as a working farm—an issue that was important to farmers near Blackwater Refuge, concerned about the rapid disappearance of farmland and the decline of the local farming community. Smith stated that the farmland will be managed with best management practices and will have runoff buffers that will be maintained by the DNR.

Local officials and environmental groups were overwhelmingly pleased with the outcome of the Blackwater Resort land sale, and several citizens closest to the debate stated that they believed it was the best outcome possible. However, concern remains that Maryland’s environmental community will be lulled into thinking that there is no longer a need to advocate for the Blackwater NWR watershed.

Bill Giese,  a Cambridge-area farmer who has been a long-time member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff at Blackwater NWR and is also an official with the Dorchester County Soil Conservation District, says he is afraid the local community will lose sight of the big picture and think the battle is done. Giese has been part of the effort to monitor the health of the Little Blackwater River and sees that the river has deteriorated over time. Giese also believes that the impervious surfaces from the 675-home adult community could have a detrimental impact on the river — a concern that Kevin Smith of DNR shares. Both men were clear in warning that this preservation project alone will not save the Little Blackwater River or Blackwater Refuge from the impact of a growing Cambridge economy.

New housing projects are coming to the Cambridge area, and the water that flows into the Blackwater NWR will have to be monitored and protected over the long term. To aid in this effort, there are currently plans to set up a riverkeeper group for the Little Blackwater River, and local officials will continue to collect data on the health of the river and the effectiveness of local stormwater control projects.

Although environmentalists were justified in celebrating this major victory of land preservation, the war to protect the Little Blackwater River and Blackwater NWR from development is not over—it  has just entered a new, and potentially more challenging, phase.   

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