Free: 300 pristine acres on the Chesapeake Bay

Published 10/27/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 10/30/2023 6:15 p.m. EDT

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has posted a call for letters of interest in taking over Holly Beach Farm, a 300 acre nature preserve just outside Annapolis.

Holly Beach Farm is a garden of marshes, coves and coastal woodlands with sweeping views that include the Chesapeake Bay Bridge — a twin expanse of steel over blue-green waters dotted by boats and ships.

Now this environmental treasure is up for grabs.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation on Wednesday posted a notice calling for letters of interest in taking over the 300-acre site just across the Severn River from Annapolis. The move follows a decision one year ago to find a new owner, and a long pressure campaign to open the one-time thoroughbred farm to wider public access.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has posted a call for letters of interest in taking over Holly Beach Farm, a 300 acre nature preserve just outside Annapolis.

“CBF’s goal is to find a steward that will honor the history and ecological significance of the property while possibly enhancing the use and exposure to Holly Beach Farm in line with the original funding sources,” the Annapolis-based nonprofit wrote in the posting.

The foundation is looking for a nonprofit or government entity that can care for the property. It wants to know what applicants would do with the land if they get it, how they would provide public access and what kind of money they can bring.

But this is not a sale. The foundation is not asking for money or another property in exchange for the farm. It set a Nov. 24 deadline for submissions but no timeline for turning over the property.

Foundation President Hillary Falk announced the decision to shed Holly Beach Farm almost exactly one year ago. It was a reversal for the organization, the largest bay preservation group. Just four months earlier, the foundation said it was about to embark on a multiyear update of the property using a large anonymous donation.

”We want to find a way to transfer the property with great respect and consideration of concerns by the community,” she said in a February interview.

Pressure for change has been building for some time because of limited public access to the property. The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit that works to preserve sensitive land, brokered a deal in 2001 to buy the land using state and federal funding. Those funds came with an obligation to open the farm to the public.

The foundation has long defended its limited access as fulfilling the spirit of those conditions. It offered tours for small groups of teachers and students.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has posted a call for letters of interest in taking over Holly Beach Farm, a 300 acre nature preserve just outside Annapolis.

In January 2022, an assistant attorney general wrote that the original plans for Holly Beach Farm called for making it an expansion of nearby Sandy Point State Park, the 786-acre getaway along the bay that is state’s most popular park. The farm was intended to serve as an environmental showcase complete with an education center.

Foundation officials, however, maintained they were meeting the terms of the funding while respecting the concerns of area residents who are often trapped in their communities by Bay Bridge traffic. They have been fiercely opposed to anything that would draw more people.

A series of developments may have pushed the foundation to this moment.

In January 2020, then-Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford waded into the future of Holly Beach Farm during a Maryland Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis. When the board took up a state grant for a living shoreline project at the farm, Rutherford took a shot at the foundation’s failure to open the property to the public.

“That is a concern,” he said. “I know there’s been some discussions with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on that particular issue. But that is concerning. That this was a pretty good deal for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. They did some good work there but they had an obligation and I understand they’re not living up to it.”

It wasn’t at all clear where this came from. Rutherford wasn’t known for an interest in environmental policy, but Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration was often at odds with the foundation. At one point, Rutherford confused Holly Beach Farm with the foundation’s waterfront headquarters outside Annapolis.

Yet it was enough to generate an inquiry by the Department of Natural Resources. A year later, then-Natural Resources Secretary Jeanne H. Riccio wrote that despite her agency’s previous assessments, the foundation hadn’t met the terms of the original agreement. She listed things left undone.

The Education Center was never constructed and the educational trips coming ashore have been extremely limited, with only 101 students visiting in all of 2019,” she wrote. “CBF indicated that Holly Beach Farm was used primarily as a maintenance and storage facility, which is not a use that qualifies for [Land and Water Conservation Fund] grants.”

Meanwhile, the long-gestating idea of a national park on the Chesapeake reached a critical phase. There were efforts to wrest the farm from the foundation’s control.

The National Park Trust, an independent, nonprofit that identifies and purchases land for the park service, approached the foundation in 2021 about buying Holly Beach Farm for inclusion in the park. The foundation declined.

When U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes introduced legislation in July that would create the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, the farm wasn’t among the first proposed sites in a network of environmental and cultural places around the watershed. Falk said the foundation was no longer opposed to the idea.

There is a lot of history on this site. S.W. Labrot bought it as part of 3,000 acres in 1907. The owner of a creosote lumber company in Louisiana, he used Holly Beach Farm as a summer home and dairy until 1926.

That’s when he established Maryland’s largest and most successful thoroughbred farm – including a racecourse on what is now a suburban subdivision known as Revell Downs. His heirs eventually sold or donated most of the land — including the locations of Sandy Point State Park and the Bay Bridge — until only the farm remained.

Today, the preserved portion of the farm sits between the bay, Whitehall Bay and Meredith Creek. Its 300 acres are dotted with massive trees, old farm buildings, a freshwater pond and, yes, a small bay beach.

Raymond J. Sherbill, a Bethesda attorney who serves on the trust’s board of directors, wrote in an email Wednesday that his organization would take another look at the property now that the foundation has posted a call for letters of interest.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has posted a call for letters of interest in taking over Holly Beach Farm, a 300 acre nature preserve just outside Annapolis.

Others may be interested as well.

Last year, the General Assembly passed the Great Maryland Outdoors Act. It includes $80 million for buying new parkland, as well as improvements to parks.

“We saw the [request] and we’re going to take a hard look at it,” said Paul Peditto, assistant secretary of land resources at the Department of Natural Resources.

He said the size of the property and the length of its tidal shoreline are nearly unheard of on the bay today.

In December 2021, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman co-wrote an op-ed with Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley that supported placing the farm in the Chesapeake National Recreation Area. The piece drew intense backlash from community activists who live near the park, which is outside the city limits.

Now, Pittman said there is no plan to submit a letter.

“We’re interested in monitoring this and making sure it winds up in good hands,” he said.

Interest also could come from the neighbors themselves.

Bitcoin billionaire Michael Saylor bought a home next to Holly Beach Farm in 2018 through a holding company called Chesapeake Gateways. In 2020, he bought Wye Hall, a Georgian Revival mansion across the bay, with the same company.

In between, he set up a nonprofit based in Delaware.

Its name is Holly Beach Farm Conservancy Inc.

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