In 1968 organization of public efforts to protect the environment was in its infancy. Realtor William “Buck” O’Brien inspired independent action to form a “Save our Streams” effort struck a responsive chord with serious forward-looking citizens’. Three organizations were created in that period. The Potomac River Association (PRA), The Patuxent Beach Citizens’ Association and the Patuxent River Citizens’ Association.
In 1967 Oran Wilkerson warned The Lexington Park Rotary Club of the impending dangers of massive pollution of the Patuxent River. His warning was published in their newsletter. At about the same time Gordon Lindner of the Patuxent River Citizens’ Association became alarmed at attempts to develop Myrtle Point as a major industrial site. He wrote the first letter to the St. Mary’s County Commissioners protesting the proposal and the Battle for Myrtle Point began. Oran Wilkerson, President of the Patuxent River Citizens’ Association joined the effort and later PRA joined the fray. A series of proposals to industrialize the Point were made. A Deep Water port, a Volkswagen assembly plant, a pre-stressed concrete building components plant, a large galvanizing facility, all were proposed.
One by one they were supported by local government and commercial interests. None of these advanced beyond the proposal stage. For each one community resistance was swift and effective.
In 1968 PRA filed a suit against the Army Corps of Engineers in partnership with David Sayre, President of the local Watermen’s Association and the watermen. The dredge project to deepen the channel to the Harry Lundberg School was damaging extensive oyster beds and silting up the creek from leaking dredge spoil pipes. There was no action by the Local County Government on this major violation of Federal Law. PRA won the suit and the court awarded $10,000 to cover costs and damages. This was shared equally with the Watermen’s’ Association. This proved to PRA that when environment laws were violated it was possible to obtain redress in the courts. A practice they have continued with consistent success. During this same year PRA defeated the initial effort to build an oil refinery at Piney Point.
In 1973 a clandestine attempt by the oil company to build support and obtain acquiescence of the regulating and permitting authorities of the State and Federal agencies for a second attempt at building the refinery were initiated. Support at the Governor’s level, various states regulating agencies, a Senator and Congressmen and in Maryland a member of the House of Delegates together with local officials and business leaders was obtained. In March of 1974 the public learned of this proposal.
To counter this powerful second attempt to build a refinery was going to be a formidable task. The public was not aware of the clandestine efforts made by the Oil Company to smooth the regulatory and political path. “The Citizens Coalition for St Mary’s County was organized and incorporated with a strong group of directors. The organizational strength was derived from two senior civil servants from the Navy, the PRA leaders, Senator Roy Dyson, then running for delegate. Senator Paul Bailey, Judge Philip Dorsey, Dr William Boyd Sr. the late Larry Millison and Charles Molitor then Editor and Publisher of The Enterprise. Dick Myers then co-owner of radio station WKIK and Randy and Ingrid Buehler of the “Beacon” another local weekly. The watermen provided massive support.
The issue was placed on the Ballot for the fall election with the co-operation of delegate James M. McKay and Senator Paul Bailey. The normally disenfranchised public won a resounding victory. They carried every voting district winning each by more than a 2/3 majority. Roy Dyson who had worked tirelessly for us, was elected as the youngest member of the House of Delegates. The refinery
was dead. In time “The Coalition” was disbanded. Its leadership, membership, funds and energy were absorbed by the Potomac River Association. The two Patuxent River Citizen’s Associations merged with each other then merged again with the Potomac River Association. PRA emerged as the dominant conservation, environmental and good government organization of Southern Maryland, and one
of the strongest in the state. Many of its members were appointed to various State organizations, related to PRA fields of interest. The second refinery issue provided a great school for the PRA leadership. We learned painfully after the referendum, of the clandestine meetings between the Oil Company and State and Federal elected and appointed officials. If we had been aware of them at the beginning the task would be much easier.
The strongest effort to develop Myrtle Point was a proposal for a “upscale” residential and golf complex. PRA and a large number of citizens seriously contested this. As a result the County Commissioners required the developer to do a series of studies of the 192 acres with 1 ½ miles of shoreline. This included studies of; the soil, forest cover, archaeological sites etc. No useful studies were done of the four tidal ponds, the marine plant and animal life other than the forests. The known
archeological site “Harvey Town” was seriously examined, despite the winter weather and shortage of funds.
These studies, directed by Julia King Ph.D. a local archaeologist. She established a comprehensive definition of the site, its history and the value and vulnerability of the site to damage by development. The commissioners with a list of important restrictions on the design, development and use of the property approved a Planned Unit Development. There were precedent setting restrictions to protect the environmental and archaeological treasures.
After more than 20 years of effort trying to save Myrtle Point PRA had established a firm “STAKE IN THE GAME.” Fortunately development of the property was slowed by changes in ownership and legal complications. Ultimately the Federal Government in a criminal bankruptcy proceeding seized the site. The property was still wrongly classified as a PUD for intensive housing and resort development and prepared for sale by the Federal Resolution Trust. PRA had
contested the out dated PUD development classification, as valid building activity had not been started before the PUD permit had expired. Unfortunately, the County Commissioners have improperly retained this designation. They have failed to explain this odd decision. The first time the general public learned of the new status of the property was when a sign offering the land for sale was erected at the Patuxent Boulevard entrance from Route 4. PRA immediately launched an intensive investigation. It learned a Chicago Real Estate firm was managing the sale. After many calls to
Chicago and New York the date and place of the auction on Long Island N.Y. was determined, the name of the Federal prosecutor of the case was learned and communications were established with all principals including the Federal Judge assigned the case. The comprehensive property disclosure package was purchased and studied.
Myrtle Point was part of a very large real estate empire, reaching down the Atlantic Coast from New England to Florida. The dozens of properties included many golf course resort communities and other large developments. Sale of the properties was authorized by the courts and managed by the Resolution Trust. The Long Island auction of the entire empire including Myrtle Point was only days away and PRA had developed no strategy save the property. Then we discovered the sales disclosure package did not properly cover the restrictions placed on the property to minimize environmental damage. PRA immediately faxed letters to the sales agent, the prosecutor, the judge and the Resolution Trust
requesting action to withdraw Myrtle Point from the auction sale. This action was successful. PRA now had time to develop a strategy to save the property and to enlist legal assistance.
After many months and dozens of phone calls, our attorney Lee Rogers Esq. head of a prestigious Washington law firm and Deborah Osborne of the Trust for Public Lands were able to have the land placed in a category which would reserve it for sale to entities involved in land conservation for environmental purposes. The result was that after considerable negotiation and with no assistance from the local government, except for a statement of their willingness to accept the property a deal was completed. The Resolution Trust sold the land with proviso’s limiting its use to the State of Maryland for inclusion in the Open Space Program. The State who had not participated in the bulk of the activity an even at one time denied its value, held a public ceremony, congratulated the PRA and conveyed the title to St Mary’s County.
Now after generations of effort, expenditure of more than $40,000 dollars of funds donated by members and friends, PRA felt they not only had a “Stake in the Game” they had a major “vested right” in the project. The recognition received from the Governor, and Senator Roy Dyson confirmed this feeling.
Alas, the County Commissioners picked up the marbles, claimed their right to do their will with the land. They initiated no open public discussion with the hundreds of private citizens who had given funds, time, and support to saving the magnificent 192acres of land with its extensive waterfront, tidal ponds, and archaeological sites. It became crystal clear that volunteer citizen action, no matter
how valuable to the general public welfare produces “no vested rights” rights not established by law, or by common decency and a sense of justice. “Vested Rights” only applies to land owners and developers. Plans, studies and proposals a plenty were produced for the county by uninformed consultants. The County Commissioners’ desire was to clear large areas of the land for a sports complex, multiple arrays of soccer fields, ball fields, basketball and tennis courts etc. Public
action was swift, determined, directed and massive. The largest meeting rooms in the Government Center were filled to standing room only capacity with the overflow in anterooms and halls. The proposals were developed with no attempt to obtain input from all of those whose work, funds and persistence had saved the land. The investment in time and money of the PRA and its members and friends was ignored. Monies donated by community members to aid in obtaining the land had made no impression.
In the wake of the rejection of the County Commissioners plans, polls to determine how the land should be used were conducted by local newspapers, sports publications and conservation groups. Some polls made no attempt at neutrality. Despite the variety of polls and the strategies employed the public desire for a Nature Park came out a resounding winner.
The initial County action was to “brush hog” wide lanes where single lane farm roads existed. A large parking area was cleared and 300 trees in the critical area were cut. Some of these trees had
3 inch and larger trunks and were in the “buffer strip.” They were cut presumably to give a better view of the river from the picnic area. Photographs of the damage, plus large aerial photographs were taken at intervals by PRA. All of the foregoing work was done without any tangible plan or clear understanding of critical areas restrictions. Before any extensive work is done on the park, it will be necessary to obtain a thorough understanding of what is in the park, what special care is needed to preserve the biologic health of the tidal ponds, and the living creatures in the park. At that time the County Commissioners voted to leave the Myrtle Point Park dormant.