Pushy enviro-pinkos, elitists -- those are some of the words that have been used to describe the Potomac River Association. Others include: retired snobs, got-miners, NIMBYs.
Erik Jansson, the shy, reticent man who heads the organization that his mother, Mary, helped found, sees it differently, of course. "We're a local civic group that's been here for a long time," he says. "We try to improve community life and protect our resources."
Divergent views typify the strong feelings that the 32-year-old environmental group engenders in St. Mary's County.
But whether they like the PRA or not, most who are familiar with the group acknowledge its record of tough environmentalism, which is unequaled in Southern Maryland. Shortly after it was formed in 1967, the group stopped a refinery from locating at Piney Point and blocked the proposed dredging of St. George Creek to make way for a deep-water port.
Members take credit for saving the Piney Point lighthouse, and they are quick to point out that the group was behind the effort that persuaded county officials to buy Myrtle Point, a 192-acre waterfront property on the Patuxent River whose future use remains in dispute over whether the land should be a nature park or baseball fields.
Just a few weeks ago, the PRA extracted a legal agreement from a retail developer to build a costly type of storm-water management system that uses the root systems of plants and trees and the natural filtering capacities of soil to control and clean the flow of rainwater from a parking lot.
PRA had argued that runoff from the 40-acre parking lot proposed by Trammel Crow Co., the company that is building a shopping center as part of the huge First Colony development in Lexington Park, would pour sediment and heavy metals into the St. Mary's River.
PRA had threatened legal action that would have delayed the shopping center for months. Richard Kabat, a senior vice president with Trammel Crow, said the firm agreed to PRA's demands to avoid such delays.
In this case, as with Myrtle Point, PRA has drawn both praise and brickbats, but the agreement with Trammel Crow underscored once more the organization's influence over development, one of the biggest forces driving events in the county.
"I think they have this overblown opinion of themselves that the environment would be a mess if they weren't doing this work. Well, who elected them?" said a developer who asked not to be identified.
Jack Witten, a former president and now a vice president of PRA, bristled at the suggestion of one local editorialist that members were "gloating" over the First Colony agreement.
"When you're a small, unfunded nonprofit group like us, and you beat a big developer on an issue like this, there's room for gloating," said Witten, 82, a retired senior civilian planner and logistics researcher for the Navy.
PRA members, Witten said, are "gentle, loyal, generous, intelligent people who have the long view in mind." The group has about 300 members, most of them in St. Mary's, but some from neighboring Charles and Calvert counties. Witten described the membership as a group of "professional problem solvers." Some are working professionals and some are retirees, with backgrounds from entomology to software technology.
They pay yearly dues of $10, but more important, many can reach into their deep and generous pockets when the call for a legal challenge is issued. PRA officials estimated that they spent $15,000 in legal fees in connection with Myrtle Point. Through the years, legal and other fees have added up to more than $100,000, Jansson said.
"I'm amazed at the amount of support, muscle, influence -- I don't know which is the word to use -- that PRA has," said Larry Pinto, former president of the Community Preservation Coalition, another citizens group.
Pinto cited PRA's longevity as a reason for its influence: It's been around longer than any other environmental group in St. Mary's.
"And they've shown they have muscle. They're not afraid to pay money for technical information or legal help. They're not afraid to spend money," Pinto said.
They are also assiduous researchers and dedicated advocates, Witten said.
No one more than Jansson, 58, who has been PRA president for six years. He has a master's degree from Yale in urban planning and has worked as a lobbying consultant for various environmental groups. Now he's consulting on global warming, incinerator pollution and Alzheimer's disease, among other issues.
It was Jansson who hired an environmental consultant to help document that the soils at the site of the First Colony parking lot help filter the rainwater.
"I think there's a great effort to make us look bad," Jansson said. "If the refinery had been built, it would have been a disaster. There's no doubt we've made a difference."
But there are some in St. Mary's who have assessed PRA's work differently and view Jansson with contempt.
Former county attorney Douglas S. Durkin was vilified last year by the PRA for his role in the preparation of a map showing that various PRA members and members of an advisory task force lived near or around Myrtle Point.
"The members of the PRA were so angry because the map exposed them for what they are: deceitful and dishonest people," Durkin said.
"With Myrtle Point, they were masquerading as environmentalists. What they really are, are NIMBYs," he said, referring to the acronym for "not in my back yard."
Another vocal critic of PRA is former county commissioner Chris Brugman, who now hosts a twice-weekly radio talk show. Brugman and Jansson clashed last year when Jansson suggested during the heated Myrtle Point debate that Brugman might have been abused as a child.
"They're a bunch of old snob elitists," Brugman declared. "Most of them aren't from the county. Most of them are retired, and they have their fancy yachts and boats. They wear the mask of a civic organization, but really they're just wolves in sheeps' clothing. They've got their piece of the waterfront. They're got-miners; now they're trying to keep others from getting theirs."
Witten explained the group's tactics. "I think you should always be civil and honest. But the idea of militancy turns a lot of people off," he said. "You can't win these games playing softball. We're always playing hardball. It was always the case, the little guy going against the big guy."
CAPTION: Erik Jansson, who has been president of the Potomac River Association for six years, says of the group's critics: "I think there's a great effort to make us look bad."