Pristine Land Has Stafford Mulling Cost, Priorities

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page B01

Virginia's announcement last month that it would lend Stafford County $30 million toward the purchase and protection of Crow's Nest, a vast forested peninsula that is one of the last individually owned tracts of undeveloped land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, has failed to settle its future.

To the dismay of some conservationists, Stafford officials are worried about borrowing money -- even at 3 percent interest -- when the costs of schools, roads and social services for new residents are piling up. Their hesitation has left room for the property's owner, McLean-based K&M Properties, to make its first formal move to develop Crow's Nest.

A great blue heron takes off from Accokeek Creek. Defenders of Wildlife says the Crow's Nest has 138 species of protected migratory birds. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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Stafford is the 13th-fastest-growing county in the country, adding as many as 2,000 housing units each year. Now county officials must choose whether to add even more homes -- and more expensive residents -- on Crow's Nest or spend more than they think they can afford to prevent its development.

Even officials who have long favored protecting Crow's Nest aren't jumping at the 3 percent, 20-year loan. "What about schools, emergency services, social services -- all going up every year?" Kandy Hilliard (D-Aquia) asked, before adding that the property must be preserved. "It's not about us, it's about what Stafford will look like in 50 years, in 100 years."

Two weeks ago, K&M submitted a preliminary subdivision plan to build 646 homes throughout the property, compared with the 3,200 homes that could be built under current zoning. The question for conservationists is whether the plans signal that construction is imminent or are only meant to create a sense of urgency in the negotiations.

K&M's attorney, Clark Leming, said developing Crow's Nest, 3,000 acres between Potomac and Accokeek creeks, is "the most profitable thing to do." But he said K&M remains open to selling to preservationists for a price in "the range of $50 million" -- twice the price settled on briefly in an oral agreement two years ago.

Leming likened the Crow's Nest negotiations to the decade-long fight to save the Chancellorsville Civil War battlefield in neighboring Spotsylvania County, noting that construction plans had been drawn up for the entire battlefield when a developer agreed to preserve a key portion of it, allowing everyone to walk away happy.

Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental advocacy group, said it may sue to stop any development at Crow's Nest, which it says is home to 138 species of protected migratory birds, including bald eagles. The loan to purchase the property would come through the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in a program designed to protect water quality. The peninsula is made up mostly of steep slopes and highly erodible soil.

Development of Crow's Nest's old-growth forests and wetlands could violate the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the group said.

"Crow's Nest Peninsula is the finest example of mature forest and wildlife habitat left in this part of Virginia," said Aimee Delach, a conservation policy expert with the group.

Other advocates see this as a no-brainer.

"I don't understand the supervisors' thinking on this. We are counting on them to live up to the commitment they have publicly stated they have, which is to save Crow's Nest," said Cecilia Kirkman, a member of the Save Crow's Nest group. "They can be penny-wise and pound-foolish. If they don't pay for Crow's Nest, they will pay later for roads and schools and all those things" to serve the new residents of Crow's Nest.

The story of Crow's Nest is a story of Washington area real estate prices extending south beyond Stafford. K&M bought the property in 1989 for $17.8 million. A decade later, a national group called the Trust for Public Land wanted to buy the land for a federal refuge, but the company rejected the group's appraisal of $15 million to $16 million. By last year, the two sides had agreed orally on a price of $25 million, but the price began climbing as no final deal was signed, first to $30 million, then $35 million, according to preservationists including the state's top conservation official, Joseph H. Maroon.

"This is one of the very few places in Virginia that remain as pristine and naturally preserved as it was 400 years ago," said Maroon, who described a "renewed effort" to buy the land. "We continue to believe it's an area that contains globally endangered forests and habitat for a wide array of important wildlife."

Now that K&M has submitted a preliminary plan, planning officials say the project could move through the system by spring.

"At this point," Hilliard said, "it's up to us to make an offer. And I expect that to happen sometime soon."


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