PHILLIPS ISLAND - Calling it an island might be a misnomer, but this 5.3-acre clump in the Nanticoke River has begun to look like the high ground for state and local environmental groups.
They are promising a fight to remove a hunting compound they say was built without local permits or regard for Maryland's 16-year-old Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Act.
At the center of the dispute is businessman Edwin H. Lewis, who made his fortune in the apparel industry with companies such as Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren.
A hunting enthusiast, wildlife art collector and pilot who has owned a 350-acre waterfront estate near Madison in Dorchester County for nearly a decade, Lewis paid $283,000 for 287 acres of Wicomico marshland in June 1999.
Set in a sea of brackish water, marsh mud and grasses, and accessible only by boat through a maze of guts and rivulets that meander off the Wicomico County side of the Nanticoke, the tree-covered property is about seven miles south of the U.S. 50 bridge in Vienna. Until a few months ago, it was an indistinguishable point in a waterfront wilderness known mostly to duck hunters and naturalists.
Then a construction crew loaded materials - including wood siding and cedar shingles - onto a barge at Vienna, and work began early this year on a 1,600-square- foot hunting lodge, four small cabins and a utility shed.
The buildings - nearly the only man-made structures visible along 10 miles of Wicomico waterfront - were almost completed before nearby property owners and environmentalists knew about them.
County zoning officials, who are charged with enforcing critical-area rules that prohibit most construction within 100 feet of the bay or its tributaries, were alerted last winter when an Army Corps of Engineers employee spotted a new pier.
"This goes beyond a minor violation, it's a major violation," says Harry E. Womack, a Salisbury State University biology professor who heads the Wicomico Environmental Trust. "For someone to just come in and do whatever the hell they please ... after that, what do you say to all the people who follow the rules?"
Lewis' lawyer, Raymond S. Smethurst Jr., insists that critics who have accused Lewis of building with the hope of gaining bargaining leverage with the county are off base.
"The idea that in this day and age someone would do something deliberately is ludicrous," Smethurst says. "It wasn't as if they tried to get around the critical area. A couple of the environmental groups are just opposed to anything out there. They see the devil in everything." Construction was halted last month when citations were issued claiming that Lewis failed to have proper permits. According to Smethurst, Lewis has agreed to move all but two of the buildings inland, away from the critical-area zone.
He will ask the county's zoning appeals board at a July 27 hearing to grant a variance to critical-area rules and allow the hunting lodge and one cabin to remain within the 100-foot buffer zone.
"From an environmental standpoint, this will have absolutely no adverse impact," Smethurst says. "They're looking at the wrong end of the telescope."
M. P. Minton III, a retired college administrator who has hunted the marshes around Lewis' property for about 40 years and owns a 200-acre marshy tract nearby, doesn't see it that way. To him, the place, which abuts the 1,500-acre Nanticoke River Wildlife Management Area, should remain the domain of eagles, ospreys and the waterfowl that migrate there each winter. Humans should leave little behind, he says.
"It bothers me that we have all this wilderness, and this guy can come in and do whatever he wants," says Minton, who first raised the issue before the Wicomico County Council last month. "I wonder what there is to stop anybody else from doing the same thing."
Wicomico activists have been joined by other environmental groups who also worry that any appearance of compromise by county zoning officials will encourage other property owners to build first and seek necessary permits and approval if they get caught.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has taken no official position on the project, but is watching the case intently. "We just want to make sure that the letter of the law is followed and no bad precedent is established," says Don Jackson, the foundation's Nanticoke project manager.
Judith Stribling, a biology professor at Salisbury State who leads Friends of the Nanticoke, wants county officials to prevent any buildings from remaining in the 100-foot critical areas buffer.
"Certainly, the environmental impact is not as great as if he had built a housing development, but we are concerned about setting precedent," Stribling says.
The state's Critical Area Commission also is monitoring the case, says executive director Ren Serey, who toured the property with Wicomico officials in May.
"It seemed to me that everything was in the buffer area," Serey says. "He's going to have a hard time justifying the need for a variance, especially since he's coming in after the fact."
That Wicomico officials were caught off guard is not surprising, says Serey. With limited manpower, enforcement throughout the state almost always follows a complaint from a nearby property owner, Serey says.
"We don't track the number of violations county by county, but you can say that many times a year, people will begin construction without permits."