Here’s a bold idea.

Greenbury Point, 250 acres owned by the Navy that juts into the Chesapeake Bay, should be a centerpiece of a new national park. And more, it should be part of a local network of recreational, environmental and cultural treasures covering more than 1,000 acres from Annapolis to the Bay Bridge.

Ridiculous, you say? Hear me out.

U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin added language to a defense spending bill that would prohibit the Navy from modifying or restricting access to the Greenbury Point conservation area until Congress passes a law approving the changes.

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And while its final passage is a long way from assured in the current political climate, the action by the Maryland Democrats is probably enough to sink plans by the Naval Academy Athletic Association to expand the Naval Academy Golf Course onto the conservation area next door.

“I think the prospects are good,” Van Hollen said. “The defense bill will take more twists and turns this year because the House larded up their defense bill with all sorts of culture war issues. But I do believe that at the end of the day, we will have a defense authorization bill and I’m very confident that this provision will remain the bill.”

Chet Gladchuk, president of the nonprofit association, was traveling Monday and said he had yet to size up the impact of this amendment. The nonprofit entity funds Naval Academy athletic programs, and a bigger course would let the academy host college tournaments. Initial planning was funded by Jerry Miller, an academy graduate and real estate developer, according to the alumni magazine.

“I’m being cautious,” Gladchuk said.

So, if the conservation area isn’t destined for 18 holes of fairways, greens and sand traps, what happens to it? Area residents would like to keep it as it is.

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The conservation area, a collection of trails through a semi-natural area, has been part of a Navy base for more than a century. Over the years, it’s been a dairy farm, a radio antenna site, a dumping ground for toxic material, a shooting range and training area for Naval Academy midshipmen and recreational facilities for active-duty military. It was created when all but three of the old antennae — steel towers that were a broadcast link to submarines in the Atlantic and Mediterranean — came down when technology changed. The area now serves as an important natural buffer zone.

When open to the public, it is a haven for runners, dog walkers, bird watchers and nature lovers. Its views of the bay and Annapolis are stunning. Even Gov. Wes Moore and his dog, Tucker, have been out there.

“Well, it is a very important conservation area and currently, of course, the public enjoys access to this beautiful area,” Van Hollen said. “And we want to make sure that that remains the case. … Of course in the future, more people may want to access the area. We think it’s important that we keep the door open for that.”

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Since Gladchuk wrote to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro last year and proposed the new golf course, many have spoken out for keeping this rare bit of waterfront space open to the public. Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman wants to lease Greenbury Point from the Navy and operate it as a county park.

All that attention raises the stakes for what Greenbury Point could be. It can’t remain a sleepy little secret, but there are hurdles to opening the door wider — military uses and traffic are just two of them. Here’s what I suggest: Make Greenbury Point part of a national park.

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Van Hollen and Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat who represents the Annapolis area, are expected to introduce legislation soon to create the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, a park in all but name that would link sites around the bay under the National Park Service office in Annapolis. The service currently oversees the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network.

The first four proposed sites are the Burtis House, a former waterman’s home at Annapolis City Dock; Whitehall Manor, a Colonial-era mansion on 130 acres just across the Severn River from Annapolis; the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse at the mouth of the South River; and the North Beach of Fort Monroe in Virginia.

Why not add Greenbury Point and more? It’s not part of the language the senators added to the defense spending bill.

“At this stage, there isn’t any connection,” Sarbanes said. “They’re separate issues.”

But it doesn’t have to be. As Sarbanes noted, there is a lot of public support for expanding access at Greenbury Point.

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“As you look at this legislation, it clearly keeps open the option,” Van Hollen said. “So, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But this leaves that option on the table, whereas converting into a golf course, would not.”

How hard would it be to include Greenbury Point in the recreation area? Hard.

This is the Pentagon we’re talking about, one of the biggest bureaucracies in the world. It exists for national defense, but in the nature of bureaucracies everywhere, its lifeblood is protecting its interests.

Yet, breaking off a piece of a military base for something like a park has happened before. After the end of the Cold War, 8,100 acres at Fort Meade were transferred to the Department of the Interior to expand the Patuxent Research Refuge.

One beauty of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area proposal is its flexibility. It would allow ownership of sites submitted for inclusion to remain with other entities. The park service would provide expertise, support and funding. In the case of Greenbury Point, the Navy could keep its uses while the rangers work on environmental improvements and public access.

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As long as I’m spinning a web of possibilities here, let’s think even bigger.

It’s hard not to look across Whitehall Bay (yes, that’s where the Colonial mansion is located) and imagine the inclusion of Holly Beach Farm. It’s a 300-acre preserve next to the Bay Bridge purchased by the state with federal money 20 years ago. It was turned over to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The foundation operated it as an educational center. Last year, the new president, Hilary Falk, convinced the board it was time to find someone who could help Holly Beach fulfill its full potential. It is seeking a new steward for the property, and maybe that ends up being the park service, or maybe not.

“We are totally open on this,” Falk told me earlier this year. “We’re making sure that whatever occurs will be in line with the guidance that we received on the property back 20 years ago.”

You undoubtedly see what’s next door — state-owned Sandy Point State Park.

The park’s 700 acres just north of the bridge draw tens of thousands of visitors to its beaches. If Greenbury Point and Holly Beach were combined with Whitehall Manor, the first National Historic Landmark in Maryland, and wrapped into the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, there would suddenly be almost 1,400 acres of recreation space, cultural heritage and nature preserves on the doorstep of Maryland’s state capital.

Nobody is saying this out loud. But just look at a map.

And all we would give up is another Navy golf course.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a golf course,” Van Hollen said. “I’m not a very good golfer, but I like it. The question is what is the best use of this land? What’s the best use of this property?”

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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