Crofton wary of hotel proposal; Landowner persists with plans despite repeated rejection


Whenever William Berkshire gets an idea, his Crofton neighbors get nervous.

"It's like, 'Oh no, here we go again,' " says Barbara Swann, the town manager.

Berkshire's ideas tend to be big ones: Over the years, he has proposed putting empty-nester townhouses, a government training center, a post office, a recreational complex and a hotel and conference center on land he owns in the center of the community.

All this is from a former Secret Service agent -- a self-made millionaire who raised five children in the western Anne Arundel County community and says he is not about to leave.

"I'm not just out making proposals to aggravate people. I've got a life," Berkshire says. "I don't want people worried about me and what devious things I'm up to, because that's all fallacy."

Berkshire's holdings include the Crofton Country Club and golf course and much other land in the area, and he makes his living developing recreational properties.

His ideas for Crofton rankle local folks, who raise concerns about traffic congestion, changes in the character of the community, and the impact on nearby households. They have rejected them all.

Some of Berkshire's concepts have come to fruition, but not through his hands or on his land. The community of 2,700 homes has a post office and a recreation complex with batting cages -- but no hotel.

And Berkshire still wants to build one -- a big one, six stories high, with conference facilities on a 6-acre tract he owns along Route 3, just inside the community gates and across the street from his country club.

The hotel proposal is based on a 1988 agreement between Berkshire and the community, in which he donated 24 acres and a lake along Route 3 in exchange for its support of his building on the adjoining 6 acres.

After 11 years, Berkshire submitted plans for the project to the Crofton Civic Association last month and says he is ready to start the planning process. That has rekindled the "Oh no" feelings on the part of some in the community.

One community leader, Gayle Sears, president of the civic association, supports the hotel -- but would rather see it built on the country club grounds a few hundred yards away than next to the town gates.

Berkshire likes that idea, too -- he prefers it, he says. But the neighbors do not.

"People in the community feel very strongly about the open space [at the country club], and they feel it should remain there," said Cathy Trebelhorn, a longtime resident and former vice president of the civic association. "That's kind of what makes Crofton a livable community. His proposals are a threat to that open space."

Some residents call Berkshire Crofton's biggest bully, a man who planted tobacco one year in front of his country club to make a point when he couldn't get his way on a development issue. They say he has been holding neighbors hostage by threatening to put unwanted developments on his prime country club land in the heart of Crofton.

But Berkshire says his ideas have posed benefits, not threats.

"It has made me feel forlorn as a Crofton resident," he says of their rejection over the years. "Those benefits were passed up for reasons that weren't justified. The community leaders have been reluctant to look at how those proposals could benefit the area."

The proposals would have benefited Berkshire too, helping to build the recreational empire that began when he was a Secret Service agent guarding Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

While studying at Southern Illinois University, Berkshire applied to the Secret Service which, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was seeking better-educated applicants. He was accepted, one semester shy of graduation, in 1965 and, at age 21, moved to Washington. Three decades later, he wears a Super Bowl-style, diamond-studded ring emblazoned on three sides with the Secret Service insignia.

He retired from the government in 1975, and two years later bought the Crofton Country Club when the organization was bankrupt and its courses deteriorated. He nursed it back to become one of the area's top clubs.

Before he put money down for the land purchase, he said, he wrote to county government, asking whether he could build a hotel and townhouses on the property. Some of his ideas -- like the hotel -- were approved, Berkshire said. But after he bought it, he found out the land was zoned as open space.

His plans for hotels, housing, water slides, Olympic-size pools and batting cages could not be realized without community approval, and that would be hard to win because residents had lobbied three years earlier for the open-space designation for land formerly zoned as commercial.

"From day one, people in the community didn't want anything there, even though the original plans call for something there," said Swann, the town manager. "The people just want the community to stay the way it is. They see anyone who wants to develop that area as out for themselves and trying to disturb the community. It's beautiful, peaceful."

"There are people concerned about his level of commitment to the [1988] agreement," said Steve Grimaud, a civic association board member who opposes a hotel at the country club site.

Berkshire said his record shows his commitment to Crofton, noting what he sees as benevolence in the 1988 deal donating 24 acres to the community after a $1 million open-space deal to sell development rights for the golf course to the federal government fell through.

A few years ago, when he turned over operation of the country club to the Arnold Palmer management group, Berkshire considered moving from Crofton with his wife, Linda, and their younger children. Instead, they stayed and renovated their home on Crofton Parkway.

"We looked for a year and a half. [Other communities] could not offer what Crofton offers to every resident that lives here," he said. "I put my money where my mouth was. I put my money where my heart is. We're committed to this community corporately and personally."

Pub Date: 10/20/99

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