About 70 people lined up at a microphone Tuesday night, waiting their turn and then cramming into two-minute time allotments both their reactions to a potential use plan for Chapman's Forest and their plugs for various special interests hoping to share a piece of the wooded gem in western Charles County.
In response to the proposed plan that would allow only minimal recreational improvements on the land, there were environmentalists who spoke poetically about the fragile 2,225-acre property and the inner tranquillity attained when hiking deep into its brush.
There were parents wearing sweat shirts emblazoned with the names of soccer and football leagues who pleaded a case for more athletic fields.
There were the town and county leaders who were still perturbed with the state for squelching the massive Chapman's Landing development plan. On Tuesday, they rejected the proposed plan as shortsighted.
And, there was anything but consensus at this hearing conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as part of a month-long public comment period regarding how to use, manage and protect Chapman's Forest's cultural and natural resources.
The discord among the public about what to do with Chapman's Forest, which runs along the Potomac River and extends past Indian Head Highway, seemed to many in the room like history repeating itself. It harked back to the heated debate surrounding the state's purchase of the land four years ago for $25 million, a move that halted a plan to build businesses and 4,600 homes between Indian Head and Bryans Road.
It also reflected the lack of unity within the nine-member citizen advisory committee that has spent two years working with the Department of Natural Resources staff to draft a management plan. The committee has reached a stalemate, members said, about how intensively the Chapman's property should be used.
"We're not going to get consensus on the property," said Bonnie Bick, a committee member and environmental activist who fought to save Chapman's Forest from development.
The DNR staff instead released a preferred plan for public comment from among three alternatives discussed by the citizen committee. The staff plans to make a final recommendation to Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary J. Charles Fox by Jan. 8.
That speedy timetable would allow a final decision by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who supports preserving Chapman's Forest as open space, before he leaves office Jan. 15.
Adequate funding for some recreational developments on the land would take many more years to secure and likely would have to come mostly through partnerships with nonprofit organizations and corporations, particularly with the gloomy state budget forecast, officials said.
Still, about half of the speakers at Tuesday's hearing complained that the state was rushing judgment on land they believe will be poorly used under the preferred plan. According to the plan, only recreational activities with minimal impact would be allowed, such as environmental education, hiking and bird watching.
That would mean no ballfields on a 60-acre parcel along Route 210, which the county has asked to lease from the state for that purpose. Several representatives from sports leagues in western Charles County argued passionately at the hearing in favor of adding playing fields, which they said their side of the county badly lacks.
"Where do we want our kids?" asked John Rye, president of the Indian Head soccer league. "Do we want them on the streets or on soccer fields, baseball fields, football fields?"
Other critics of the preferred plan, including Indian Head Town Council member Edward W. Rice, pointed to the plan's lack of improvements that could bolster western Charles County's economic health. They contended that the property's historic homes, such as Mount Aventine, could be maintained while also making the area more attractive to prospective homeowners and businesses.
Chapman's Forest lies within the county's development district and should include athletic fields, a conference center and a venue for concerts, Aubrey Edwards, executive director of the county's Economic Development Commission, said in an interview.
"The property would be best used . . . if it maximized its ability to provide an enhanced amenities package in the communities," he said.
Another large and vocal contingency at Tuesday's hearing were members of the equestrian community. They spoke of the shortage of riding sites in the county and of their hopes to secure a place in Chapman's Forest.
Even they might not have much luck, however, if environmentalists succeed in keeping the property as undisturbed as possible. They want the spot to be accessible to residents and tourists, they said, but they also want to preserve its wildlife, open fields, wetlands and streams for generations to come.
"The authenticity of the property needs to stay intact," Bick said. "It's a national treasure."