Trial Postponed; Bays Foundation To Own Land

SNOW HILL – A Montgomery County woman charged with the misappropriation of funds earmarked for a land conservation and wetlands creation on a vast property near Showell remains behind bars this week after her trial in Worcester County Circuit Court was postponed on Wednesday, but the court has appointed a trustee for the land which will be transferred to the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

The complicated case originated nearly a decade ago when the Perdue Company granted a roughly 80-acre tract of land to the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary in exchange for a conservation easement on the property in 1997. The non-profit organization was supposed to preserve the property in its natural state and create new wetlands on the land and was given $150,000 to help finance the conservation and restoration.

However, the project was never started and the land steadily fell into disrepair. Dianne Pearce, formerly of Rockville, Md., was the president of the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary, based in Silver Spring, Md., and has since been charged with misappropriation of funds by a fiduciary and failure to keep accurate financial records for the organization relating to the property in Worcester County near Showell.

The charging documents allege “from January 1999 through April 2006, Pearce appropriated money and other things of value that she held in a fiduciary capacity for the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to a use and purpose not in the lawful execution of her trust; and that she failed to keep accurate financial records about the activities of Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary, Inc.”

If convicted of all counts, Pearce faces a maximum sentence of five years in jail, $3,000 in fines and liability for restitution. The case is being prosecuted by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. The trial has been postponed and rescheduled several times, the most recent coming this week when it was set to begin on Wednesday and was laid in on the docket for six days.

According to the charging documents, Pearce, as head of the non-profit organization, did not fulfill the terms of the agreement when the land was transferred from Perdue to the non-profit organization.

“Dianne Pearce, as president of Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary, Inc., had made certain promises regarding the ultimate use of the property, but never fulfilled those promises and conditions,” the charging documents read. “The property has been neglected since 1999 when Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary took ownership and no wetlands have been created on the property as promised during this time period.”

In November 2004, Worcester County Judge Theodore Eschenberg entered a judgment of default against Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary, ordering the organization can no longer benefit from the use of the property in Showell. Since then, the criminal charges against Pearce for misappropriating the funds have been filed.

While Pearce’s trial was postponed yet again this week, other significant activity in the case moved forward. On Wednesday, a motion was granted requesting the court name Todd Burbage as trustee for the purpose of executing a trustee’s deed of transfer for the property, to which Burbage has consented, according to court records.

The accepted motion further requests Burbage, acting as trustee, transfer the property to the Maryland Coastal Bays Foundation Inc., which has agreed to take ownership of the property in an effort to perpetuate its existence as a place for wildlife to thrive and in accordance with the general intent of the easement restrictions,” the court documents read.