Written by Elizabeth Beckley
As the Eastern Shore Field Director for Preservation Maryland, I cover a beautiful and fragile region known as Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Known as the ‘Bread Basket of the Nation’, in Washington’s day, it is one of the few remaining places where one can literally walk through the colonial landscape as it was seen hundreds of years ago. There are many small ‘cross road’ vernacular towns and an abundance of colonial era farm and manor houses that dot the broad landscape.
As a rural agricultural region, it faces many threats, primarily development pressure from the surrounding cities of Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia. We serve as a tempting resource for developers as well as utility companies, who see the opportunity to capitalize on the incredible growth projected for the region over the next twenty years. What ensues is a hard fight from conservation and preservation organizations to protect and conserve as much of our landscape as they can and help guide our local governments to construct comprehensive plans and employ cutting edge land use policies that reflect the goals of sustainable development and Smart Growth.
When I began my position in February of 2009, I immediately began working on one of the most pressing issues facing the Eastern Shore in Dorchester County, the Maryland Power Pathway Project or MAPP for short. The national utility company Pepco is proposing a massive extra high voltage 150 foot, 75-foot wide transmission line that would originate at the nuclear power facility at Calvert Cliffs, travel underneath the Chesapeake Bay and surface at Taylors Island in Dorchester County. These transmission towers will then proceed to cross 27 miles of pristine countryside and require rights-of-ways that will consume 650 acres of Dorchester’s agricultural, forest and rural lands.
Unfortunately, the enabling legislation that was passed by Congress as a provision of the 2005 Energy Act “precludes meaningful federal protection for historic resources as mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act.” In 2007 the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized this incredible and ominous threat and nominated the ‘Historic Places in Transmission Line Corridors” to their 11 Most Endangered List.As I write this there is a proposal moving through Congress to establish the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park in Dorchester County. It is one of two ‘sister’ parks, the other being in Auburn, New York, where Harriet Tubman established her home base from which she conducted many return trips via the Underground Railroad in and out of Dorchester County to emancipate over 70 other souls from bondage.
A Special Resource Study completed by the National Park Service in 2008, has determined that the proposed park area meets all the criteria as a National Historic Landmark based on the significance and integrity of its cultural landscape. The stunning part is, that what you begin to realize, is that the proposed route of the MAPP transmission line is going to walk clear across the heart of this national treasure. The National Historic Landmark designation is important, because is by far the most powerful tool for requiring the utility company to have to potentially jog the line to avoid directly impacting the cultural resources.
My field office is housed with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, a successful, forward-thinking land trust organization who I work closely with on many shared initiatives. They hold conservation easements that fall in the proposed route of the transmission line and their outstanding advocacy efforts against this threat have been well under way for over a year. We have worked closely with the Dorchester Citizens for Safe Energy, a citizen activist group who has retained a specialized consultant that assists them in their advocacy efforts. They have put a tremendous amount of effort in calling attention to the actual process that the State of Maryland and the Public Service Commission must review and approve before a project like this is allowed to move forward.
We have worked hard to highlight the threat in the media, joined in a speakers series to educate and engage county residents and participated as a consulting party in the process. In July, Preservation Maryland, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and the National Trust signed a joint letter with more than 20 other organizations to Governor Martin O’Malley calling for a comprehensive review process to be implemented for all linear energy projects proposed for Maryland.
I believe that nothing mobilizes people like the threat of losing something they truly value. The imminent threat of this power line has galvanized all residents of Dorchester, watermen, farmers and others, to stand up and fight for their home. As preservationists, we have a rare chance to speak with an audience whose minds are open to learning about new tools and measures that will help them preserve their county. For the first time, they can appreciate that historic preservation and strong land use ordinance are powerful tools that can help them, rather than hinder them, to keep control in the hands of county residents.
Dorchester County is an illustrative example of the threats that historic communities are facing, and the importance of preservation as a tool to guide and control growth in rural areas. The residents here never imagined that it would be their heritage resources that would provide a new and powerful revenue stream for the county. They have successfully protected this land for hundreds of years, but now they face new threats that endanger these resources forever. If this power line goes through, they could face a tremendous explosion in growth that can only be mitigated by enacting strong land use and preservation ordinance now.
At the same time, more than 75,000 heritage tourists are expected to visit Dorchester in the first year of the opening of the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park. The county has no choice but to address the need for services that those tourists will bring, while protecting the heritage resources that brought them there to begin with. It is exciting to see them realize that the classic tools of historic preservation play a critical in their ability to maintain their sense of place. This is not the last threat that Dorchester will face, but it could set the tone for future battles to be fought and won here.
For more information and resources on the Maryland Power Pathway Project, please visit www.eslc.org.
Elizabeth Beckley is the Eastern Shore Field Director for Preservation Maryland and the National Trust For Historic Preservation.