A Sept. 11 Metro article about the preservation of a heron rookery on Potomac Creek incorrectly described the group Save Crow's Nest as made up of supporters of Stafford County Supervisor Kandy Hilliard (D). The group is nonpartisan and has not endorsed either candidate in the Aquia District race, in which Hilliard is running against Paul Milde (R). (Published 9/15/2005)

Stafford County's political leadership could undergo a major shift this fall, when four of seven seats on the Board of Supervisors will be up for election.

The election in November will come as Stafford -- the second-fastest growing county in the Washington region -- struggles with growth and prepares to rewrite its development master plan. Among the key issues is what should be done about Crow's Nest, a 4,000-acre heron rookery on Potomac Creek that is one of the largest privately owned undeveloped tracts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

It might not remain undeveloped for long.

Sixteen years after K&M Properties, a McLean-based developer, purchased most of the Crow's Nest peninsula, efforts by local, state and federal officials to buy it for conservation have failed. State conservation officials said that with a K&M proposal to build 680 houses on the land making its way through the county Planning Department, now might be the last chance to buy the land and save it from development. Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has stated his commitment to preserving Crow's Nest and has set aside at least $5 million for its purchase, but a new administration might have different priorities.

Last month, nearly 200 people attended a screening of a new, locally produced documentary touting the peninsula's natural treasures, the local newspaper has been running letters to the editor that plead for the protection of Crow's Nest, and some residents are pushing for the county to stop development of the land through eminent domain.

"Crow's Nest: Stafford County's Last Refuge," written by activist Archer DiPeppe, focuses not on politics but on the attributes of the five-mile-long peninsula, including the thousands of acres of mature hardwood and old-growth forest, bald eagles and hundreds of pairs of great blue herons.

The county board will be faced with making a decision about the land, which K&M discussed selling two years ago at an asking price of $25 million. That price has reportedly risen to $40 million to $50 million. The board's choices include buying the land, raising the funds through a bond referendum; offering K&M a land swap that would allow the company to build on a comparable piece of land; or a compromise that would allow building on part of the peninsula.

K&M attorney Clark Leming said that the developer is open to all of the options but noted in a recent opinion piece in the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg that "the game is moving into the ninth inning."

Crow's Nest has been fuel for county board candidates, who have said they believe that supervisors are mishandling a precious resource or have wasted too much time on the issue while more pressing concerns, such as increasing traffic, pile up.

"The voters should have the chance to decide, and we should just move on, one way or the other," said Mark Dudenhefer, a Republican challenging board Chairman Gary D. Pash (D-Garrisonville).

The campaign to save the land has spawned two Web sites: www.savecrowsnest.org, run by allies of Supervisor Kandy A. Hilliard (D-Aquia), whose district includes Crow's Nest; and www.savecrowsnest.com, founded by Hilliard's opponent, Republican Paul Milde.

Others in the race are Democrat George Schwartz, who is challenging Mark W. Osborn (R-Falmouth), and Joe Brito, an independent running against Gary F. Snellings (R-Hartwood).

Milde's Web site asks residents to sign a petition supporting a bond referendum to raise money to buy Crow's Nest. The site has been critical of supervisors for delaying such a referendum as negotiations continue.

Milde, who requested that questions be sent to him by e-mail, said residents have expressed more interest in Crow's Nest than in any other county issue, and he faulted Hilliard for not acting sooner to purchase the property.

With K&M's plan moving through the planning system, he said, "we could have put a bond referendum before the citizens to allow them to choose, but my opponent selected to talk and not to act."

The site run by Hilliard's supporters does not specify which approach the county should take to preserve the peninsula, and Hilliard said she has resisted saying what she thinks the board should do because she wants negotiations with K&M to continue without pressure or publicity.

"I have continued to hold my tongue, even though typically, that's not how I handle things," she said.

The issue has become subsumed in partisanship. Milde's Web site describes him as "a leader in the movement to save Crow's Nest," but people involved in the longtime efforts to purchase the property said he hasn't attended any of the meetings about the issue over the years. They contend he put up a Web site to capitalize on the issue during his campaign.

"It's just purely political, a Republican political move to try and capture the moment," said John Mitchell, who was involved in negotiations with K&M when he worked for the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust. "I'm not saying he doesn't have any feelings for Crow's Nest, but I just don't know why you'd set up" a Web site when an established effort is already underway.

Ken Mitchell, a former supervisor representing the Aquia district and who lost the spring primary election to Milde, says he supports the challenger -- so long as the money used to buy Crow's Nest doesn't come from taxpayers.

"People like Paul Newman give away millions every year. Those are the type of people who could be talked to about saving this land," Mitchell said. "You have a conservative candidate in Milde and you have a liberal candidate in Hilliard. We need a conservative approach."

Many candidates and activists said the election could be pivotal because so many big decisions are on the board's horizon. Supervisors are expected to rewrite county standards for building on agricultural tracts as the county's remaining rural land is quickly developed in three-acre parcels -- the largest piece of land a landowner can build on without permission. And supervisors say they soon will update the county's comprehensive plan for the first time in a decade; state law requires a new plan every five years.

Although some residents and candidates have said that asking taxpayers to cover the cost of the purchase of Crow's Nest isn't appropriate when taxes are already rising, others said it will cost taxpayers more to provide services for a new residential development on the land.

"I think the board is afraid to spend the money because of politics. But what does one high school cost? Then you have additional people for parks and social services and libraries and courts," said Barbara Kirby, a member of the county Planning Commission who appeared in the Crow's Nest documentary. "Thirty million dollars is a drop in the bucket."