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A battle over 'paradise'; Haven: St. Helena Island has become the battleground in a dispute between a property owner and neighbors.


An old mansion on enchanting St. Helena Island, long a quiet summer haven in Little Round Bay, has become the unlikely focus of fury from residents and Anne Arundel County officials upset by its owner's proposal to turn it into a private club.

Keith Osborne, owner of the Annapolis-based Fantasy Island Management Inc., wants to throw parties and hold weddings in the home -- built in 1929 as a replica of the Homewood House on the Johns Hopkins University campus. Residents of the Crownsville communities on the bay say they have been disturbed enough by blaring renditions of "Louie Louie" during the eight or nine weddings Osborne held at the mansion last summer.

The county sued Osborne's company in October, contending it was running a commercial operation on a property zoned for residential use. Annapolis residents have joined the fight, fearful that a club would mean hundreds of wedding guests parking in their crowded city while they take off from City Dock in chartered boats to the island.

The controversy comes to a head today when a county planning and code enforcement hearing officer will listen to all sides in the rising dispute.

"We don't mind the neighbors having a party," said Kathleen Winter, who reported that noise from wedding parties on the island has made it hard to hear music at her dinner gatherings. "But the idea that this is something that's going to be repetitive? It's going to change the nature of our neighborhood."

Osborne argues that all he's doing is trying to share the community's tranquillity with the outside world by establishing a private club, which is allowed on residential property as long as it is not for profit. "It's not really a money-making operation," he said. "I enjoy doing it. This is a good way to open up parts of the Severn River so people can enjoy it. We have a little paradise over here."

The party dispute is the latest in a colorful history on Osborne's slice of "paradise."

In 1955, county police searched St. Helena after a Baltimore man found a bottle washed ashore with a note saying: "Help. Am on St. Helena Island Severn River being chased by a crazy occupant. Eats people alive. Get police. Come quick."

Detectives found nothing and dismissed the note as a prank.

In February 1953, Anne Arundel County Manager Edward R. Lonergan suggested that the state buy the island and build an institution for the criminally insane. "A sort of Alcatraz of Maryland," he was quoted as saying.

St. Helena was used over the years as a summer camp for handicapped children, a private club in the 1940s with a restaurant and casino, and home to such luminaries as Illinois Circuit Judge Steadmond Prescott and Dr. Charles E. Iliff, an eye surgeon and Johns Hopkins University professor of ophthalmology, according to Osborne.

The island is divided now among Osborne, the Eva Gude Brandt Foundation and the Walter D. Pinkard family in Baltimore.

Osborne's mansion is the only building regularly used. He bought the house and 6 surrounding acres four years ago. In July 1997, Osborne applied for a certificate to use his property for a private club.

Last spring, before the license was issued, he began advertising his paradise island in Washington Bride magazine. He held weddings on St. Helena throughout the summer.

Michael Finigan, past president of the Long Point Civic Association, said about 200 homes on the waterfront are affected by noise that travels easily over the water into back yards from Osborne's wedding parties

Beatrice Peirce, who has lived in Long Point since 1964, said noise often begins in the afternoons of parties, when boats ferry caterers and organizers, and lasts late into the night after the parties end as people clean up and depart.

"I think it's absolute abuse of the community," Peirce said. "I like to read on my porch that faces the water and it is most disruptive to me. We would like the island to continue to be a residential setting without hundreds of people coming by on weekends."

Osborne said residents have not complained to him directly. He said he has tried to meet with residents through County Councilman Bill Burlison.

Burlison said he declined to set up the meetings because he's seen no support from his constituents for the project.

"To my knowledge, [Osborne] hasn't discussed his plans with anyone" in the community, said Donald Yeskey, president of the Generals Highway Civic Association, an umbrella group of 23 community organizations, including the ones fighting the private club.

Yeskey said one community association invited Osborne to speak at its meeting but he did not respond. Yeskey has urged residents to attend this morning's hearing to protest a zoning variance Osborne applied for in November. He has asked for a waiver of the requirement that he must provide on-site parking.

Osborne said parking is not needed because guests will be taken by boat from the Annapolis City Dock to the island -- a 45-minute ride. He said guests will be encouraged to park at the Naval Academy stadium and to take the shuttle bus to the City Dock.

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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