Jarrell Watson had been familiar with the natural beauty of Southern Maryland -- the wetlands, shorelines and forests -- but he was altogether unprepared the first time he stepped into the magnolia bog.
"It was breathtaking. It seemed like a different world, almost an environment that didn't belong in this area, almost tropical," Watson said. "You see plant life you don't see anywhere else."
He saw large cinnamon ferns looming up from a carpet of sphagnum moss; he saw holly trees, skunk cabbage, wild blueberries and the sweet bay magnolias in white-flowered bloom.
That memorable introduction came in the summer of 2003, before ground had been broken on the 319-home Hunters Brooke subdivision, which would sit on a hill overlooking the magnolia bog, known as Araby Bog.
Today, work in the development has led to citations by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
An environmental fight over this land in western Charles County had been going on for several years, with biologists and residents saying that the homes would permanently damage a rare ecosystem that filters groundwater feeding into Mattawoman Creek and the Potomac River. The fight was so contentious that six months ago, when arsonists torched the new neighborhood -- destroying 12 homes and damaging 15 others -- investigators initially considered that it might have been an act of eco-terrorism.
"Araby is the most pristine, least disturbed, largest magnolia bog that we know of globally," local environmentalist Bonnie Bick said around the time of the Hunters Brooke groundbreaking, just before another lawsuit was filed trying to block the development. "It's a rare ecological treasure, and unfortunately, Charles County doesn't understand that right now."
Watson, 24, an environmental studies student at the College of Southern Maryland, was intrigued by the controversy and decided to study the bog. In 2003, he surveyed the plant life, and this year, after the dozens of homes had been built nearby, he came back to observe anew and take water samples. He wrote up his findings in a report for his environmental management class. He was dismayed by what he found.
"It's a mess," he said. "This development is going to destroy the bog. It can't exist with all these woods gone." He said paving in the area has allowed more storm water runoff to drain into the bog.
Watson and environmentalists who opposed the subdivision said the clearing of trees will increase sunlight exposure and allow invasive species such as ivy, clover, dandelion and briars to move into the bog.
On recent visits to the bog, Watson and his friend Maricel Yalung, 22, observed muddy water being pumped out of a pipe down through a drainage buffer and into the bog. Watson and his friend took photos of the muddy flow.
"[The bog] is full of sediment now. You can see upstream where it's crystal clear and downstream where it's really muddy," Watson said.
"I feel that the developers just have no regard for the life of this bog," Watson said. "It's all just a shame."
The discharge was the responsibility of Facchina Construction of La Plata, a contractor on the project, said Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. Facchina has received three citations for sediment-control violations in connection with soil that showed up in a nearby stream that is a tributary of Mattawoman Creek as well as a nearby bass pond, McIntire said.
The Hunters Brooke pumping has stopped, McIntire said, but Facchina may have to pay up to $33,000 for the violations. The final penalty is determined by the Maryland attorney general's office. Representatives of Facchina did not respond to several calls seeking comment.