The Naval Academy is on the verge of shutting down its 856-acre dairy farm in Gambrills, a move that likely will lead to a battle among the Navy and community and environmental groups over plans to replace it.
Developers have long eyed the tract, just minutes from Interstate 97, with easy access to Baltimore and Washington. Navy and Anne Arundel County officials floated a plan in May 1994 for golf courses, athletic fields, nature trails, picnic pavilions, an indoor swimming pool and county offices.
Either use, however, would irreparably damage Jabez Branch, an environmentally fragile trout stream, environmentalists say.
The Jabez was the last stream in coastal Maryland where wild brook trout spawned. By the late 1980s, the fish had died off, victims of the construction of Interstate 97 and upgrading of Route 3. Thousands of gallons of hot water coursed from the concrete into the stream, killing fish that cannot survive in water warmer than 68 degrees.
State officials have transplanted about 300 trout into Jabez Branch over the past several years, and surveys have shown they are breeding there again. But those fish would be wiped out by fertilizer runoff from golf courses, leaders of the Severn River Association have argued.
The association and a new group, the Committee to Save the Dairy Farm, collected 5,000 signatures last year on petitions protesting the park plan.
"If their true motivation is to get out of the dairy business, then we need to find something that would be compatible with the environment and the community," Hal Counihan, president of the Committee to Save the Dairy Farm, said last week.
"We always suspected that they wanted to put a golf course there because the course in Annapolis is always booked. You practically have to wait until someone dies to get in there."
Congress created the farm in 1911 to provide a safe, clean source of milk for midshipmen after an outbreak of typhoid fever at the academy. The farm supplies milk, ice cream and juices in blue-and-gold cartons and houses some educational programs.
But a federal economic study says the farm -- almost three times as large as the Naval Academy -- is a money-loser. The Navy wants to replace it with a more lucrative project.
Anne Arundel County Councilman Bert Rice, who represents the area, said he is concerned about the environment, but he also is interested in having recreational facilities in his district.
"I think West County needs that," he said.
Sam Minnitte, County Executive John G. Gary's acting chief of staff, said Mr. Gary has no specific plan for the land. "It is really driven by the Naval Academy and what their needs are," he said.
Mr. Gary is to meet with Adm. Charles R. Larson, the academy superintendent, in a few months to talk about the farm, said county spokeswoman Lisa Ritter. The fate of the farm probably will be discussed at the March meeting of the academy's governing group, the Board of Visitors, said Capt. Tom Jurkowsky, an academy spokesman.
"A golf course or a park might be reasonable and would certainly preserve the land," he said, but added that many options are possible. "If and when we sell or lease the land, we don't want to walk away from it totally," he said. "There has to be some strings attached to a deal like that."
Shutting down the farm requires approval from the Board of Visitors and Congress, Captain Jurkowsky said. Before that approval is obtained, officials must develop a plan for using the land that would generate money to benefit midshipmen. The land is owned by the Midshipmen's Trust Fund, which helps pay for such activities as the Glee Club, nonvarsity sports and the Debate Club.
While academy officials say they are sympathetic to environmental concerns, they are committed to getting out of the dairy business. Since 1992, when a committee set up by Rear Adm. Virgil Hill, a former superintendent, found that the farm was too expensive to operate, the academy has been pressured to either close it or make it turn a profit.
In October, during an appearance on a television talk show, Vice President Al Gore mentioned the farm as an example of a waste of government money.
But academy officials say closing the farm, which costs $1.1 million a year to operate, won't help taxpayers because profits from leasing or selling the land would go to the trust fund, not the federal government.
"We don't want any of the money to be turned over to the government," Captain Jurkowsky said. "And Admiral Larson is not going to forsake the community over this."