Land war ends well Developer, opponents of Arundel project to work for a park; Dispute continued 12 years; $6 million to be sought from county, state to purchase 500 acres


In a bizarre ending to a bitter 12-year battle, a multimillionaire developer and the community activists who thwarted his building plans met yesterday to pledge a united effort to turn their battlefield into a park.

Longtime foes Dominic F. Antonelli and members of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development (SACReD) have never before seen eye-to-eye on anything when it comes to 500 acres of lush, green wetlands on the Shady Side peninsula.

"This isn't about being adversaries to the end," said James R. Foster, president of SACReD. "This is about solving a problem. It's all behind us now, and we're doing what it takes to move forward. And this is the best chance we have for a win-win situation."

Added Antonelli, "I'm just a businessman. I don't save the bay and wetlands and stuff. But if that's what everybody wants to do and I get paid, then that's what we'll do."

Before this act of conciliation, Antonelli envisioned a community of 152 single-family homes on the land, called Baldwin's Choice. Members of SACReD, who live in the communities that surround the property, wanted to preserve the area's marsh grasses, bayberry plants and southern pine trees. Neither side wanted to budge.

Until now.

Pointing to an osprey nest and standing beneath a dying maple tree on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, the combatants agreed it was time to stop fighting. They will try to persuade county and state officials to buy Antonelli's land for preservation.

On Saturday, more than 100 community volunteers and county and state politicians will meet at the site to clean the years of litter, automobile tires, plastic jugs and motorcycle seats. Foster said the cleanup also will give SACReD a chance to talk County Executive John G. Gary and the state into paying Antonelli $6 million for his land.

The asking price is considerably less than the $18 million he was offered a decade ago for the property.

"They're finally talking to each other, which is remarkable," said Lisa Ritter, Gary's spokeswoman. "This has been such an intense issue on both sides. The county executive is pleased and excited. It's certainly a positive step."

Baldwin's Choice is one of the last remaining parcels of undeveloped land on the Shady Side peninsula.

Antonelli, a Washington developer who made his fortune in parking garages, bought the property when it was a hunting club. His family lived there about five years before he began buying up small lots near his land and what used to be known as Deep Creek Airport to be used for development.

"I came in during a time when people were saying 'We need to fill a lot of this land,' " Antonelli recalled. "Swamp land was considered junk."

He didn't suspect that his effort to build single-family homes on the subdivision would take him and his lawyers in and out of endless zoning board meetings, public works hearings and courtrooms.

SACReD members fought him during every step of the process. They testified at hearings, plastered the peninsula with "Save the Point" signs, organized rallies and letter-writing campaigns and courted media coverage to publicize their fears about crowding schools, damaging wetlands and adding to traffic on Shady Side Road.

The fighting reached its peak last year when Antonelli sued SACReD members for libel, accusing the community activists of going too far when they wrote politicians and business executives questioning whether he was involved in secret liens and sweetheart land deals.

The $50.2 million libel suit Antonelli filed still wasn't enough to quiet the South County volunteer organization.

"It was about as bad as you could get in our fight against him," said Michael Shay, a member of SACReD. "It was very distressing for our organization and very hard on our volunteers. You could say it was the low point."

During their 2 1/2 weeks in court, both sides began seeing the benefits of working together, and they met face-to-face for the first time. Antonelli lost the defamation case last month but did get the court to rule that SACReD printed falsehoods about him.

"I just decided I was doing a lot for nothing," Antonelli said as he walked beside Foster and Shay. "I was not getting anything accomplished."

So together, Antonelli and SACReD traipsed through the woods. The developer slipped on a muddy path, trailed a yellow butterfly and visited the site of his old summer home.

Joseph B. Browder, an environmentalist who represents the Chesapeake Environmental Protection Association and the South County Conservation Trust, watched it all. He helped broker the deal between the two sides.

"What's remarkable is that these two interests who were so antagonistic for so long have finally come together," Browder said. "Mr. Antonelli could make a fortune developing this land, so he's really doing a big thing here.

"It just really tickles me to see it happen, and it'll help save the bay, too."

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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