Saving land is goal of trust


The lilacs were in full bloom when Navy officers Adm. William Clarke and his father-in-law, Capt. Samuel Bryan, bought 12 acres perched above Weems Creek in 1920 and called it Lilac Hill.

Most of the lilac bushes have died, but little else has changed on the bluff where Liz McWethy grew up, got married and came to love the land, purchased by her father and grandfather the year she was born. Last year, McWethy and her husband, retired Navy Capt. Robert McWethy, took steps to permanently preserve Lilac Hill by placing the property in the Severn River Land Trust.

"It's possible to drive up here and to have the feeling that you are cut off from the terribly frenzied world," said Liz McWethy, 81. "Up here, everybody feels relaxed and very glad that they can step into a place where it's calm and beautiful."

The Severn River Land Trust has stepped up its efforts to attract property owners like the McWethys who have resisted lucrative offers from developers.

As the private land conservation movement gains momentum nationwide, the trust is working to raise its public profile and persuade landowners to consider a conservation easement to block development on environmentally sensitive properties.

The public relations push appears to be getting results. Last year, the trust placed easements on seven properties along the river and its creeks, compared with the one or two annual acquisitions since the nonprofit group was established in 1988 to preserve the Severn River watershed. The trust has 225 acres under easement and hopes to triple that this year.

"If a person is looking at their real estate as a boon for making money, a conservation easement is not the real answer," said Sandra Parks-Trusz, executive director of the trust. "But for people who appreciate the quality of life they have in the area and recognize that it's due in part to the natural areas, this is an option that is starting to make a lot of sense to people."

Over the past year, Parks-Trusz and trust volunteers have made the rounds at community meetings to explain the trust's mission and have held seminars for attorneys and financial planners on the tax benefits of donating a conservation easement. An easement restricts development permanently, and applies to current and future owners of the land.

The trust also has signed on more lawyers who have agreed to do pro bono work for the organization.

"We've moved from a grass-roots organization to more of an organized entity," said Vice President Chris Swatta. "The problem we have in Anne Arundel County is land values have gone so out of sight."

Waterfront property in the county can sell for as much as $500,000 an acre, he said.

Financial incentives

Land trusts also offer financial incentives. Landowners who put their property under a conservation easement are eligible for tax relief programs. Donors in Anne Arundel County receive a full property tax waiver, and the easement allows substantial reductions on estate taxes.

"People are looking for a way of ensuring that a property can stay in the family," Parks-Trusz said.

For the McWethys, the decision to put 6 acres of Lilac Hill in a trust resolved a number of issues related to inheritance of the property. It will go to the couple's six children, who support their parents' choice. Liz McWethy's brother owns the remaining 6 acres.

"It settles a lot of touchy questions when you take 6 acres and start to divide it," Liz McWethy said. "Who do you favor with the view? What do you do if someone wants to sell to developers?"

Putting Lilac Hill under a conservation easement reflects the McWethys' attachment to the place as well as their philosophy about the importance of preserving open space.

Liz McWethy realized the value of conserving land in fragile watersheds early on.

She was among a group of Annapolis homeowners who got together in 1965 to save land that was threatened by U.S. 50 construction. They succeeded in placing an easement on the property through another land trust in Maryland. The loosely organized group became the Weems Creek Conservancy, which fought irresponsible development in the creek's watershed.

"She has been the guardian angel of Weems Creek before many of us recognized the adverse environmental impacts in that river," said County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, who represents Annapolis.

Jim Martin, vice president of the conservancy, remembers demonstrating with Liz McWethy against development near the creek.

"She was no shrinking violet," he said. "She was quite a voice."

McWethy grew up in a prominent Navy family. Her grandfather, an 1881 graduate of the Naval Academy, started the academy's dairy farm, and her father was a 1917 academy graduate who supervised amphibious forces in World War II.

Her Navy ties grew stronger when she married Robert McWethy, a 1941 academy graduate who proposed to her in a canoe on Weems Creek. Although Captain McWethy's Navy career has taken the couple across the country, Lilac Hill was home, and they returned for good in 1971.

"This has always been headquarters," said Bob McWethy, 82, who said he spends much of his time these days clearing brush in his wooded back yard.

Liz McWethy developed a respect for nature while growing up at Lilac Hill, where her grandfather established an apple orchard after retiring from the Navy.

"We had huge bushel baskets that we had to fill up," she said. "It was very boring; the exciting part was when he would squeeze them in an apple cider press to make apple toddy for next year."

Easement on Lilac Hill

The conservation easement on Lilac Hill prevents development, but the two existing structures - the guest house and the main house - may be replaced in the same locations.

The McWethys spend most of their time in the guest house, part of which dates to before 1800. The original section of the main house was built in 1860.

In warm weather, thousands of daffodils bloom in the garden, where the three McWethy daughters were married. Summer finds the McWethys and their family outside, playing croquet, kayaking or sometimes sleeping.

"We don't have any air conditioning," Bob McWethy said. "And in the summer when it gets real hot, we have the sleeping porch."

Now that they've assured the survival of Lilac Hill, the McWethys are working to persuade other property owners on the creek to do the same.

"Land is not a replaceable commodity," Liz McWethy said.

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