Conservationists protect a Green Cathedral

In order to protect the Severn River and restore the Chesapeake Bay, land trusts and state agencies in Maryland were purchasing conservation easements on land around the river, protecting an area known as the Green Cathedral. But then something unexpected happened.

By Lorri Barrett February 1

A landowner on a conserved property along the river made plans in 2011 to relocate his residence to a larger building area right on the riverfront. Preventing excessive construction and silt erosion is imperative for the survival of the oyster reefs — so conservationists strenuously objected.

The landowner had purchased property on which a boathouse had burned down to the foundation years before. He proposed razing the ruins of the boathouse and starting from scratch to build a larger building in the same location. He wanted to make the new building his residence, adding plumbing, electricity and a septic system. The project would put a substantial burden on the land and potentially expose the river to new contaminants.

While the easement terms allowed for reconstruction of lost buildings, the easement prohibited construction within a 100-foot protective buffer by the river. Still, the landowner argued he had the right to reconstruct the lost boathouse, expand it and even upgrade it for use as his residence.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which owned the easement and was responsible for enforcing it, rejected this argument. They said that reconstruction would disturb the buffer along the river, that the building was never meant to be a residence and that expanding the original footprint of the historic building was out of the question.

The landowner sued the state DNR. Conservationists — specifically the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and neighboring communities concerned about the threat to the river and the Green Cathedral surrounding the river — asked the court if they could join the case. Working together, the state and conservationists successfully defended the land. Ultimately, the court found in 2019 that the buffer restriction trumped any right the landowner had to rebuild or improve on the property.

A noteworthy postscript: James Earl, a philanthropist, joined the defense to help protect the river. The Helena Foundation, named in honor of his mother, has gone on to support the Land Trust Alliance’s Conservation Defense program so that other land trusts have resources to call upon in moments of need.