Education center-resort rising quietly at Elk Neck

Sun Staff

Trucks rumble through the waterfront state park at the northern tip of theChesapeake Bay. Machines are digging drainage ponds and trenches for pipes. A15,000- square-foot dining hall with a water view is rising amid theevergreens, its angled roofline - three stories tall at the peak - dominatingthe landscape.

A sports complex, aquatic center with whirlpool tubs, and a pier forpowerboats and personal watercraft are under construction nearby.

As Maryland lawmakers and environmentalists fret over the Ehrlichadministration's possible sale of protected land, a vivid example of alarge-scale project undertaken by a wealthy businessman is under way onproperty that many thought would be preserved for future generations.

NorthBay center

On 98 acres of Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County, retirement home builderJohn C. Erickson is constructing NorthBay, a $30 million education center,camp and corporate retreat that is more resort than rustic. It is rising alonga half-mile stretch of North East River beach, on property leased from thestate for free.

The project, which broke ground in May, is being touted as a public-privatepartnership between the Erickson Foundation, a nonprofit created in 1998, andthe state Department of Natural Resources. It is designed, in part, to teachsixth-graders the value of the bay.

But corporations and other groups will be allowed to use it as well. Thefoundation says it needs to collect $2 million to $3 million a year in fees tocover operating costs, though the project is not described as a moneymakingventure.

Planning has been in the works for years. The foundation searched for landand signed a lease to build within the park borders in 2002, during theGlendening administration. After Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was elected laterthat year, the plans went forward, with high-level administration officialssupporting the project.

Detailed drawings for the upscale retreat, with dozens of buildingscovering 126,000 square feet, were unveiled after Ehrlich took office. Underthe current administration, the state granted permission for the EricksonFoundation to put some of the buildings on sensitive waterfront land.

State officials say the project is of great benefit to Maryland.

"It's a way for disadvantaged kids to learn about the Chesapeake Bay in away they otherwise might not have," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. "Thegovernor believes it was a great concept. He believes there's a lot of creditto go around, including to the Erickson Foundation and the previousadministration."

Public policy issues

But the facility's approval has drawn criticism from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which says the state should adhere to the rules imposed on itscitizens.

"You're talking about a permanent project that, once built, can't bechanged. And once the infractions on Maryland's environment are done, thatcan't be changed," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the BayFoundation. "This was a place where the state should be setting the example.Our position was, if it had been private property, the project would not havebeen allowed as designed."

In the eyes of other critics, the project raises significant public policyquestions, especially in light of recent revelations that the Ehrlichadministration had prepared a list of land, including some in and around stateparks, that could be sold to local governments or private developers.

The state should be in the business of preserving parks, they say, ratherthan allowing development in them.

"There should have been robust discussion with the public about whetherthere should be development at the state park, and whether or not otherorganizations should have the same opportunity to run a program at this park -or any park," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends ofMaryland, a conservation group.

'So much of a secret'

Neighbors of the park, at the end of a peninsula accessible by a narrow,two-lane road, say they were blindsided by the project. Several said they seeparallels between NorthBay and the Ehrlich administration's aborted plan tosell 836 acres of protected forest in St. Mary's County to constructioncompany owner Willard J. Hackerman.

In each case, they say, a wealthy businessman and regular campaign donornegotiated in private to gain access to publicly owned land, with nocompetitive bidding.

"It's all kept so much of a secret," said Billye Jo Jackson, a neighbor ofthe park who worries that the camp's plan to draw 50,000 gallons of water aday will sap the well she uses for her home. She says the start ofconstruction seemed to be rushed this year, with drilling permits grantedbefore she could seek a delay so water concerns could be studied.

The mission of the camp is also troubling to some, with its apparentemphasis on serving Christian and faith-based groups.

In promotional materials, NorthBay says that in addition to public schoolstudents, the camp will be available during the summer and on weekends "tovarious groups and organizations that serve young people - the YMCA, YoungLife, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, youth groups, etc."

Young Life, according to the group's Web site, "is a nondenominationalChristian organization" that for more than 60 years "has been introducingadolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them to grow in their faith."

DNR officials said the state has been working with Erickson to develop thecurriculum and is confident that lessons will focus on the environment.

"There is no religious segment to this," said Arnold Norden, DNR's centralregion planner.

DNR officials said state law did not require them to seek bids beforeleasing the property, and point out that Erickson approached them with theproject.

DNR sees big benefit

The foundation is sharing the costs to upgrade Elk Neck's wastewatertreatment plant, officials say, and campers will do work in the state parkthat the Department of Natural Resources could otherwise ill afford. And theysay that while Erickson is assuming most of the risks in the venture, thestate is getting a huge benefit.

"A $30 million investment doesn't come across our desk every day," saidGene Piotrowski, the department's director for resource planning.

But the state receives no money from the foundation in rent, and will notshare in any revenue that the camp generates from school groups, companies andyouth organizations.

One of 14 children, Erickson, 61, made his fortune building retirementhomes. His properties include Charlestown in Catonsville and Oak Crest innorthern Baltimore County. His projects operate as nonprofits.

At the camp, Erickson Construction is building the air-conditioned cabins,halls and other structures. The company is donating its services, said KateNewton, a spokeswoman for the foundation.

The foundation will control use of the buildings; already, a no trespassingsign is posted by the entrance road to the camp.

Schoolchildren from Baltimore and elsewhere will pay a relatively low feeto use the center on weekdays, said Bob Bingham, Erickson's director for theproject. The children might be asked to contribute a few dollars, and theschool districts would also be charged, he said.

On weekends and in the summer, youth groups and corporations will pay ahigher fee, he said.

"The Maryland State Department of Education is working with us to identifykids who don't have access to a bay experience," Bingham said.

"I'm told that this was the most highly scrutinized project, andstate-of-the-art design," Bingham said. "It was about kids, and it was beingdone in the right way for the environment."

Groundbreaking took place in May, at a ceremony attended by Andrea Steele,wife of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has been a leader and coordinator ofthe Ehrlich administration's faith-based policies.

A year earlier, John Erickson and his wife, Nancy, wrote two checkstotaling $8,000 to the Bob Ehrlich for Maryland Committee, the governor'scampaign account, state records show. Since 1999, Erickson and members of hisfamily have contributed at least $12,000 to Ehrlich. He has also given toDemocrats in Maryland, including William Donald Schaefer and Kathleen KennedyTownsend.

Waterfront for free

From the beginning, it was clear that the Erickson Foundation's deal withthe state was unprecedented. Under the agreement, Erickson pays nothing tolease a waterfront area of Elk Neck State Park for the camp. In exchange, afoundation will teach Maryland's children about the Chesapeake Bay.

In 2000, Erickson staff members approached then-Natural Resources SecretaryJ. Charles Fox with its idea. The foundation looked at several sites. Intestimony before the state's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission, Ericksonsaid the foundation chose Elk Neck because it was close to the water, had awaste-water treatment facility and once housed a YMCA camp.

"It was a struggle for me," Fox said. "We have a duty to protect openspace, and this was a clear tension between providing open space and providinga rich opportunity for people that would involve development on a state park,"Fox said. "I lost a lot of sleep on this because it was such a precedent inproviding this kind of use on state parkland."

Much discussion ensued at the Department of Natural Resources, in partbecause the agency had never leased public lands except for concession standsand other small enterprises. Erickson initially chose a site in the footprintof the old YMCA camp so buildings could be easily clustered near the water.But the site nonetheless cut into the habitat of forest interior-dwellingbirds, protected under the critical area law.

For several months, the department tried to persuade the foundation to moveits site about 200 feet to an area that was already cleared. Erickson didn'tlike the idea because the camp would have had to be divided into two clusters.

Several times during the tense negotiations, Fox said, he was tempted tocall off the deal. But he kept working because of the camp's mission.Eventually, Erickson did move the site - a relocation that Norden said costthe foundation several hundred thousand dollars.

Officials at the Critical Area Commission said that once Erickson moved itssite, they heard few complaints.

"Compared to other things that we see, the opposition was not really muchat all," said Ren Serey, the commission's executive director. "It took a longtime because it was a huge project, not because it was controversial."

'One of those deals'

But some neighbors were concerned about the NorthBay plan, especially whenthey learned that the camp was exempt from local planning and zoningapprovals. When residents learned that the camp would be building in thecritical area, some called Ehrlich's office and their legislators. But bythen, the project was well under way.

"It became clear that this deal was well-greased before anyone knew aboutit," said George Lutz, a North East real estate appraiser who said he learnedof the camp through a friend on the Critical Area Commission. "It was kind ofone of those deals that was like a stealth bomber."

Lutz and others wanted to know why the state was allowing a private entityto build within critical-area buffers on state land when private citizens gotfined for much smaller infractions. Mimi Szep, who has sold waterfront land inCecil County for decades, asked that question at the Critical AreaCommission's public hearing, but said she never got an answer.

"I simply wanted an explanation as to why they were permitting Erickson todo it when they would not let a private citizen do that on his or herproperty," she said.

While Szep likes the camp's mission, she said she wishes that neighbors hadbeen notified before the deal was completed. The narrow road leading to thecamp needs improvements, she said, and neighbors are concerned about trafficbecause there are several other camps in the area.

The camp plan might have been invisible to neighbors, but officials at highlevels of the Ehrlich administration knew of it.

In January, Martin G. Madden, the former Republican state senator whochairs the Critical Area Commission, wrote a letter to Ehrlich's chief ofstaff, Steven L. Kreseski, indicating that Ken Usab of the Erickson Foundationwas awaiting final approval from the Maryland Department of the Environmentfor permits relating to storm water management and impact to wetlands.

"We are prepared, as Mr. Usab has requested, to move forward at our March3rd meeting if MDE issues the permits or assures us that all outstandingmatters relating to stormwater management and wetlands have been resolved,"Madden wrote.

Madden called his letter a "status report," and said it is not uncommon foragency personnel to inquire about projects.

Concerns for the bay

Madden and other high-level Ehrlich administration officials also gotinvolved when the Chesapeake Bay Foundation - acting on tips from anonymouscallers - checked NorthBay's site plan and learned that the camp would affectseveral acres of the critical area buffer.

On April 1, a conference call was set up with Bay Foundation staff, stateofficials and Erickson representatives. Among those participating were Madden,state Secretary of the Environment Kendl P. Philbrick and Natural ResourcesSecretary C. Ronald Franks.

The Bay Foundation's director had already written to Madden expressingconcern that an environmental center on state property was not being built inan environmentally sensitive way. Coble said she offered Erickson suggestionson how it could change its site plan so as not to harm the environment.

"We weren't just naysayers," Coble said. "We were trying to buildsolutions. Our recommendations and suggestions fell on deaf ears."

Though Erickson hadn't broken ground, Coble said its officials said theycould not change plans at such a late date. And, Coble said, state officialsdid not push them to do so.

Madden said the Bay Foundation raised its concerns too late - afterapproval had been granted and the public meeting process had ended. Coble'sletter was dated April 7, the day the Critical Area Commission granted finalapproval for the camp.

"I am sorry that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation did not get a chance toexpress its concerns in the appropriate manner," Madden responded to Coble. "Iwant you to know, however, that your concerns are similar to those discussedat great length by the commission during the review process over the lastthree years."

Madden and Serey said the incursions into the critical area buffers werenecessary, temporary and minor - and that NorthBay would be a worthwhilereturn for the disturbances.

"We believe this project is going to be a model," Madden said. "It's a verycompelling need in a time of budget crisis. We have a chance to have stateland improved."

As questions continue to emerge about how the NorthBay project receivedapproval, some of the state's leading environmentalists wonder how it couldhave gotten so far without their knowledge.

"It's the first I'm hearing about it," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh,chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

"I'm not going to leap to, `This is criminal,'" she said. But "when it'sparkland, when something is designated and preserved as open space andparkland, it's for a reason."

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