Score one for the bullies: Threats and boos kill Quiet Waters environmental center

Chesapeake Conservancy drops plan for waterfront office at popular Annapolis park

Published on: January 24, 2023 6:00 AM EST

The point at Quiet Waters Reserve offers an expansive view of the South River and the Chesapeake Bay. A plan for an office building at the park property was dropped this week by Chesapeake Conservancy.
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I’ve watched the rancor flag unfurl over Annapolis since I wrote about plans by an environmental group to put up an office building at a popular park.

On Sunday night, the Chesapeake Conservancy capitulated.

“In consultation with the Earl family, we have decided against building the proposed structure that we had hoped would serve as the Earl Conservation Center at Quiet Waters Park,” the Annapolis-based nonprofit said in a 9:44 p.m. statement.

It’s not a surprise. The conservancy and the Earl family made the expansion of this popular park possible, orchestrating the $8 million sale to Anne Arundel County using state, federal, local and private funds. The deal was that the conservancy would move into buildings on the 19-acre expansion, but that changed to a proposed new building after arson and tornado damage.

It was always going to be a tough sell to the public, and goodwill matters to small nonprofits like the conservancy. There are still people rankled by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s waterfront headquarters in Annapolis, built on the site of an old resort. The conservancy can’t afford that.

Yet, this isn’t a true victory for environmental activism. It was a win for the bullies. It’s a win for threats. Score one for misinformation, hyperbole and bad faith in Annapolis.

Days before area residents met to discuss opposition to the project, survey crews from the Baltimore engineering firm WBCM were confronted at the site by angry people.

“Unfortunately, routine harassment for highly public projects is not uncommon in our line of work but this situation as described to our team escalated beyond that,” architect Christopher M. Brown of Ziger/Snead Architects wrote in an email Friday. “The surveying team on site was verbally berated by the person(s) on-site and we’re directly threatened with damage to their work vehicle to the point where his team almost felt the need to call the local police. The exact threat was something along the lines of ‘…don’t be surprised if your truck is on fire when you get back.’”

“This is totally unacceptable behavior by local neighbors and we would encourage everyone to exercise due diligence when at or around the project site moving forward — please be extremely careful and immediately report any threatening behavior.”

Brown said the firm opted not to file a police report right away out of concern that it would inflame opponents at a meeting last Friday. The email, subsequently forwarded to me, was sent to alert key people to the threat of violence.

Word of it got to County Executive Steuart Pittman over the weekend, and on Monday he expressed disappointment at both the loss of the project and the behavior of opponents.

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“I am very disappointed that the Chesapeake Conservancy’s outstanding work to create the Earl Conservation Center was met with such vitriol by nearby residents, leaving the Conservancy no choice but to direct its efforts elsewhere,” the Democrat said in a written statement. “I am saddened that recent threats to surveyors by neighbors and online attacks on the organization and its director left the board with no appetite to continue.”

Opponents, such as Andy Loftus of the Friends of Quiet Waters Park, were shocked, too.

“There’s no place for this,” he said.

This all started three years ago when philanthropists Jim and Sylvia Earl worked with the Chesapeake Conservancy to fund the purchase of Quiet Waters Retreat — the first addition to Anne Arundel County’s most popular park since its opening in 1990.

Quiet Waters is 340 acres of historic farmland overlooking the South River. It is home to wooded trails, picnic pavilions, an amphitheater, a skating rink, meadows, playgrounds, a dog park and beach and kayak rentals. One million people visit every year. So, of course, people care about what happens at the park.

In 2019, the Earls and the conservancy fronted $2 million to buy the retreat, and then convinced Pittman and the Navy that the time was right to buy.

The U.S. Department of Defense contributed $1 million from its recreation and welfare fund — Annapolis is home to the Naval Academy and a significant number of service members around Washington — and the Pittman administration kicked in $5 million from state Open Space funds.

What they got was more than 1,700 feet of stunning waterfront, a sprawling, 6,175-square-foot farmhouse in need of major repairs and several other small buildings including a boathouse.

From the beginning, the plan was for the conservancy — a small but influential land preservation group focused on public water access — to move into the farmhouse and share the space with two or three other groups.

Then, in September 2020, an EF-1 tornado cut a six-mile path along both shores of the South River. It knocked down trees at Quiet Waters Retreat, destroying several small buildings that the conservancy had planned to convert into workspaces. A month later, someone broke into the farmhouse and set it on fire.

The Earls put up another $2 million for the proposed Earl Conservation Center, a 15,000-square-foot office and meeting space for up to a dozen small environmental groups. It would serve, they hoped, as a catalyst for greater collaboration.

Few people noticed the change in plans, even though the County Council approved a revised lease in 2022 and it was reported by the local newspaper. The plan for the county’s portion of the project — including trails, remediation work, a road and a maintenance facility — drew little comment at a public meeting that was, foolishly, scheduled on Halloween.

After I wrote about the project in November, the reaction was predictable. Torches and pitchforks were gathered, fact-challenged op-eds appeared and an opposition group quickly formed. The county agreed to a second meeting, although focused on its project more than the conservation center.

On Friday, opponents took questions from a crowd at a local church. Pittman showed up briefly to say his administration was listening but that he continued to support the conservancy project. Changes were being considered, though, and some on the council were rethinking the lease.

He was booed off the stage.

A key speaker was Loftus, who talked about traffic, a lack of transparency and the need to adhere to the original 1988 plan for the park.

“What could be done better?” he asked Monday. “More transparency, more public input.”

Opponents want you to believe this was a sneak attack on public property and not a partnership that always included space for offices. The impact of the building was always going to be small, and arguments about traffic jams and secret plans were an exaggeration.

They want you to see this as an invasion of public land. They don’t talk much about how it was likely headed for development as more expensive waterfront homes without the conservancy and its leader, Joel Dunn.

When I walked the property, I had qualms about the idea of constructing a glass-walled office building in such a beautiful setting. It is better left alone. But kicking the conservancy out wasn’t fair. Those boos Friday and the threats last week make this fracas seem more about elitism and who gets access to the water than about protecting an $8 million view.

I don’t know what happens next to Quiet Waters Retreat. Without the building, the county will redraft its plans for the park expansion. Chesapeake Conservancy still controls its lease, so that gives it leverage of some kind.

For those who are celebrating a victory, I have to ask, at what cost?

This was a creative way to conserve a rare site that local and state governments couldn’t afford. Who’s going to step forward for the next partnership? Who’s going to want to deal with threats and a self-appointed environmental posse?

Great job, Annapolis.