Friday, March 19–County Land Preservation Buys In Jeopardy

SNOW HILL – Funding for two land preservation projects might have to come from elsewhere, the Worcester County Commissioners decided this week.

More than 400 acres of Holly Grove Swamp, on the way to preservation in perpetuity, still faces serious funding obstacles.

The purchase of the Ayres Creek-Holly Grove Swamp Phase II project has been assigned $1,375,000 from the federal Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program. However, that funding must be matched by some other source.

Part of the match, $500,000 from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, has not yet been confirmed. The Trust for Public Lands is hoping to raise the remaining $875,000 from private donors. The county does not have the money to help with the match.

Program Open Space (POS) funding cannot be used because the site is outside the POS Targeted Ecological Area.

Protection of natural resources is admirable, but must be done prudently, said Ed Tudor, director of Development Review and Permitting, who had concerns about the project.

The Worcester County Recreation and Parks Department does not support the purchase. Director Sharon DeMar Reilly wrote in a recent memo that her department is concentrating on “a premier environmental project” on the former Weidman Farm, now called Grey’s Creek Nature Park. POS funding should be used to purchase land to allow better access to the new Grey’s Creek park, according to Reilly.

“The county’s focus as a first priority is to complete the planning and implementation of Grey’s Creek Nature Park,” Reilly wrote.

The Ayres Creek-Holly Grove Swamp area is primarily wetlands, with 43 acres of upland coastal forest and half a mile of shoreline on Ayres Creek.

The preservation of the area was originally seen as a publicly accessible part of a conservation project to preserve Holly Grove Swamp, which at 4,000 contiguous acres is the largest block of unprotected woods in the county.

The swamp provides habitat for 11 state and federal endangered, rare or threatened plant and animal species, and is home to the largest concentration of the rare red-bellied water snake in Maryland.

Once purchased, the land would be called the Ilia Fehrer Nature Reserve. The Maryland Coastal Bays Program has offered to manage the site.

Tudor is concerned that the county, which must sign on as sponsor of the purchase even if it does not contribute any funding or manage the site, will incur future costs as owner of the land.

The county might incur costs on the Ayres Creek-Holly Grove parcel if the site is managed for passive recreation, staff said.

Liability could be an issue as well, said county attorney Sonny Bloxom.

“It depends on what you do with it,” said Bloxom.

If the land were purchased and left natural and managed as a reserve, there would be very little cost, according to staff.

Funding is not certain, Commissioner Judy Boggs pointed out.

“I’m sure the pool of private donors has just about dried up in the recession,” Boggs said.

“If they don’t come up with the money, we don’t hold the title,” said Commission President Bud Church.

The county could agree to hold the title, but not put money into the purchase, said Bloxom.

“It’s a no brainer,” Church said.

The commissioners voted unanimously to agree to take title to the land if it is purchased.

The commissioners gave similar treatment to an easement in the Dividing Creek Rural Legacy Area, voting to approve it without yet agreeing to provide matching funds for the purchase.

The county has encumbered $531,000 over the last few years for Rural Legacy matching funds. Those funds could be applied elsewhere, however.

“We’re $4.9 million out on a budget, and we have no idea what the state of Maryland will bring down on our heads,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley. “We need to know what we’re going to end up with budget wise.”   

A survey needs to be done on the property, which will take until mid-summer, said planner Katherine Munson. A final decision could be postponed until that survey is completed and reviewed by all the pertinent agencies.

The easement purchase, which must be approved by the Rural Legacy Board and the Maryland Board of Public Works, could still go ahead without the county’s financial participation.

There could be consequences if the county does not ultimately add its own funds to the purchase, Tudor warned. Future Rural Legacy funding to Worcester County could be reduced as a result of the county deciding not to contribute funds to the land buy.

The commissioners approved the easement purchase and to reconsider offering a match for the purchase at a later date.