Trucks rumble through the waterfront state park at the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay. Machines are digging drainage ponds and trenches for pipes. A 15,000- square-foot dining hall with a water view is rising amid the evergreens, its angled roofline - three stories tall at the peak - dominating the landscape.
A sports complex, aquatic center with whirlpool tubs, and a pier for
powerboats and personal watercraft are under construction nearby.
Maryland lawmakers and environmentalists fret over the Ehrlich
administration's possible sale of protected land, a vivid example of a
large-scale project undertaken by a wealthy businessman is under way on
property that many thought would be preserved for future generations.
On 98 acres of Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County, retirement home builder
John C. Erickson is constructing NorthBay, a $30 million education center,
camp and corporate retreat that is more resort than rustic. It is rising along
a half-mile stretch of North East River beach, on property leased from the
state for free.
The project, which broke ground in May, is being touted as a public-private
partnership between the Erickson Foundation, a nonprofit created in 1998, and
the state Department of Natural Resources. It is designed, in part, to teach
sixth-graders the value of the bay.
But corporations and other groups will be allowed to use it as well. The
foundation says it needs to collect $2 million to $3 million a year in fees to
cover operating costs, though the project is not described as a moneymaking
Planning has been in the works for years. The foundation searched for land
and signed a lease to build within the park borders in 2002, during the
Glendening administration. After Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was elected later
that year, the plans went forward, with high-level administration officials
supporting the project.
Detailed drawings for the upscale retreat, with dozens of buildings
covering 126,000 square feet, were unveiled after Ehrlich took office. Under
the current administration, the state granted permission for the Erickson
Foundation 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 a
way they otherwise might not have," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. "The
governor believes it was a great concept. He believes there's a lot of credit
to go around, including to the Erickson Foundation and the previous
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 its
"You're talking about a permanent project that, once built, can't be
changed. And once the infractions on Maryland's environment are done, that
can't be changed," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Bay
Foundation. "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 have
been allowed as designed."
In the eyes of other critics, the project raises significant public policy
questions, especially in light of recent revelations that the Ehrlich
administration had prepared a list of land, including some in and around state
parks, that could be sold to local governments or private developers.
The state should be in the business of preserving parks, they say, rather
than allowing development in them.
"There should have been robust discussion with the public about whether
there should be development at the state park, and whether or not other
organizations should have the same opportunity to run a program at this park -
or any park," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of
Maryland, 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 see
parallels between NorthBay and the Ehrlich administration's aborted plan to
sell 836 acres of protected forest in St. Mary's County to construction
company owner Willard J. Hackerman.