Neighborhood profile: Scientists’ Cliffs

September 27, 2013

Take a stroll through Scientists’ Cliffs and it’s not hard to imagine what it was like 50 years ago in this community perched atop the Calvert County cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay, when scientists and other nature-loving professionals retreated to their rustic log cabins under the cool forest canopy.

Today, residents still live in those cabins, modified and modernized over the years. Many were built with trees taken from the 275-acre tract back in the 1930s and ’40s. On a recent Saturday as a bald eagle soared overhead, longtime resident Peter Vogt strolled along the narrow streets, pointing out features of the original houses. Some of the log homes include stone chimneys held together with masonry made out of “iron stone,” a combination of iron oxide and sandstone.

At the edge of this enclave lies the bay, visible for residents who occupy prime property and accessible via trails down the steep ravines. For Vogt, 74, a retired marine geophysicist who spent plenty of time on the water, Scientists’ Cliffs has become the perfect home for a scientist with a love of nature. “Grows on you like a fungus,” Vogt said. He pulls up invasive plants and vines when he’s not hunting fossils along the cliffs near his home, which features a chair carved out of the hulk of a downed tulip poplar.

Vogt moved to the community with his wife, Randi, back in 1969, and many other residents have long ties to Scientists’ Cliffs. “There always has been a strong connection to the natural world” by residents, said Leslie Starr, whose husband, Joe Turner, began coming to the community as a young boy. Said Turner: “You go down to the beach and it looks like it did 60 years ago.” Among the 246 homeowners, Turner and Starr are among the roughly half who are part-time residents in the private community, about an hour from Washington. The Scientists’ Cliffs Association, a civic group, operates the community’s facilities.


(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

A natural beginning: G. Flippo Gravatt and his wife, Annie, forest pathologists, bought the land in 1935 to create a community for scientists, according to a history posted on the association’s Web site. The wooded tract and the fossil-laden cliffs appealed to the Gravatts, whose original home, Chestnut Cabin, was willed to the residents and now houses a small museum.

Preserving the land: Residents who live near the cliffs, such as Tom Insel and his wife, Deborah, have planted natural grasses and other plants to stabilize the soil. The Insels added a nitrogen-
reduction septic system concealed by gardens and other landscaping to limit rain runoff.

The couple visit regularly from their primary residence in Montgomery County. Tom Insel stood in his yard and pointed to an area of the bay covered with ripples that he said indicated a school of menhaden. “Fish is a pretty good metric of the health of the water,” he said.

“The great thing about this place is the natural history of this area. That’s what brought a lot of us here,” added Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

Residents put together funds in the late 1980s to purchase 436 adjacent acres of undeveloped land and formed the American Chestnut Land Trust, named after the trees once common to the area. The trust now manages more than 3,000 natural acres, acquired by the state and the Nature Conservancy. The trust includes Parkers Creek, renowned for bird habitat, and offers hiking and canoeing.

Starr, a charter member, said Vogt and the late Ralph Dwan led efforts to create the trust but noted that “the idea of protecting the land appealed to everyone.”

Like a summer camp: William Gray, an agent for Home Towne Real Estate and a 40-year resident, also operates the community’s pool. “In summer, [Scientists’ Cliffs] comes alive. It’s like living in a summer camp,” he said, with crafts and games for children, movie and teen nights, and a Fourth of July celebration.

Living there: Scientists’ Cliffs is bordered by Scientists’ Cliffs Road and the Parkers Creek watershed to the north, the Chesapeake Bay to the east, Scientists’ Cliffs Road and the American Chestnut Land Trust to the west, and Aspen Road to the south.

Waterfront homes run from $399,000 to $599,000, water-view from $350,000 to $450,000, and others from $275,000 to $350,000, Gray said. Seven homes sold in the past 12 months, at prices ranging from $325,000 to $599,990, and 11 are for sale, from $279,000 to $499,900. Gray noted that many older properties sell “as is,” and new nitrogen- reduction septics can cost thousands, though state subsidies for failing systems can help. The association maintains standards for the exteriors of homes, and wood or a special siding is required, Gray said.

Scientists’ Cliffs’ residents pay about $2,000 a year to maintain the roads, common areas, facilities and the water system, said Tina Bryan, a former president of the association. Volunteers help maintain the gardens, beach and trails, and Bryan noted that residents have “strong opinions” but are passionate about where they live: “An unpretentious group of very neighborly folks who get along well.” Over the years, a community building was built on donated land, and the pool was added in 1975 with donated funds.

Natural hazards: Bryan has been coming to the area since the late 1940s, and her family eventually built a house in 1962. She has lived with her mother full time in Scientists’ Cliffs for the past five years, operating a publishing business from her home. That business took a hit during the 2012 derecho storm when a six-ton tulip poplar fell and destroyed the house. It took eight months to repair. After that storm, “people around here look at the forest with slightly different eyes,” she said.

Aside from falling trees, erosion is a significant issue; Vogt said two homes along the cliffs’ edge were demolished this year under a federal-state buyout program that included eight others elsewhere in Calvert County.

Nearby: Shopping centers, the College of Southern Maryland and Calvert Memorial Hospital are 10 to 15 minutes away in Prince Frederick. Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant and state and county parks are within a short drive.

Schools: Pupils attend Barstow Elementary, Calvert Middle and Calvert High. While the community has many older residents, Bryan noted that when she gets behind a school bus, she is always surprised how many children get off. “Now, there’s a real mix of ages,” in Scientists’ Cliffs, Vogt said. “It’s very refreshing.”

Crime: According to the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, there were two thefts in the past six months.

Jim Brocker is a freelance writer.

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