County officials have handed a pair of victories to Fort Washington residents fighting residential development of a 23-acre parcel along the Potomac River where thousands of prehistoric Native American artifacts have been found, and which may contain the graves of slaves.
The Prince George's Historic Preservation Commission on June 15 rejected developer Leo Bruso's plan for eight homes on about 10 acres of his Riverview Road property. That followed a June 9 ruling by zoning hearing examiner Maureen Epps Webb rejecting one-acre home lots on a separate 10-acre section of the property that is within the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, where only one house per 20 acres is permitted.
"I am very happy to have two decisions go in our favor within a week," said Potomac Valley Citizens Association President Dawn Davit, who for nearly three years has led the neighborhood's anti-development effort.
"It's pretty exciting. I think the community continues to show how passionately they feel about this land."
Davit and others want county officials to acquire the property -- a grassy rolling meadow that slopes down to the Potomac -- for a park. They say that besides its Native American history and possible slave burials, there are indications that a Revolutionary War skirmish may have been fought offshore.
"We think the property is so important to the telling of the county's history that it should be publicly acquired and held," Davit said.
Bruso vowed after the commission meeting to continue his fight.
"I live in the United States of America, and I'm being opposed by a handful of people that are trying to say they represent the majority, [but] the majority of people want upscale housing," he said.
"I am trying to create the county's first million-dollar-plus homes. I should be allowed to build my eight houses right now," he said.
Last year, the County Council -- after hearing testimony about possible slave burials and the land's potential archaeological significance -- designated Bruso's property as the Broad Creek Archaeological Site.
Such a designation requires the Historic Preservation Commission to review plans and make recommendations to the county Planning Board, which rules on subdivision requests, though its decisions can be appealed to the County Council.
Hoping to overturn the council's historic designation of his property, Bruso -- who has argued that all of the land's significant artifacts have been found and that there is no evidence of slave graves -- is appealing the designation in Circuit Court. A decision by Judge Steven Platt is expected later this summer.
In last week's unanimous commission vote -- from which Chairman David Turner, who outspokenly opposed Bruso's plans before heading up the panel, recused himself -- commissioners cited the property's archaeological importance and the possibility of slave burials, and urged the Planning Board to reject the plan.
The board is slated to consider the issue July 8. In May, the board asked Bruso to conduct a ground-penetrating radar search of his land for the possible unmarked slave graves. The search has not yet been scheduled, and it is unclear whether results will be available before the July hearing.
Archaeological concerns were also cited by Epps Webb, the zoning hearing examiner, who -- after weighing public testimony presented at previous hearings -- recommended that the County Council deny subdivision of the land's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area section. She reported that development of the property would "result in an island of increased density, will have some impact on migratory birds in the area, and it is unclear what further protection of archaeological resources is necessary."
Bruso disputed her reference to migratory birds, noting that "the geese are surviving at the County Administration Building. They're all over the grass, all over the pond. Why is my site different from the County Administration Building?"
He also challenged her assertion that his development would be "an island of increased density," citing two of the county's pioneer upscale subdivisions.
"What was Tantallon when it was built?" Bruso asked.
"What was Woodmore when it was built?"
Bruso said he would appeal Epps Webb's decision to the County Council, another step in a dispute between Bruso and neighbors that for almost three years has played out in county hearing rooms, courtrooms and even cemeteries.
It began soon after his 2001 acquisition of the 23-acre pasture on the west side of Riverview Road from the family that owned it. The parcel was part of a $1.5 million purchase that also included about 19 acres on the east side of Riverview Road, where a number of luxury homes on one-acre lots have been built in the Riverview Reserve subdivision.
According to land records, Bruso's company, Florida on the Potomac LLC, paid $1.5 million for the Riverview Reserve lots and "$0" for the 23 acres, which had been involved in a failed development project.
The land had a cloudy past. In the late 1980s, the Marriott Corp. considered constructing a waterfront home for retired military officers on part of the property and an adjoining tract. The parcel was also considered an official "historic resource" deserving further study, in part because it had belonged to the prominent Lyles family, five of whose members were buried in a small family cemetery on the property that Bruso would eventually excavate, enraging neighbors.
But Marriott's plan was opposed by the neighborhood, and when the company failed to get the necessary Chesapeake Bay Critical Area rezoning, it scrapped the project. Archaeology work done by Marriott during that period turned up thousands of Native American artifacts. One zone was so artifact-rich that archaeologists at the time considered it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places -- which was cited last week by the Historic Preservation Commission in its unanimous vote against development.