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New homes upstream, dry farm downstream


BOWIE -- Joseph Mills just wants to keep doing what his family has been doing on the outskirts of this town for 30-some years - raise a few cattle on the hilly 10-acre plot his aging parents entrusted to him.

Oasis Farms, they call it. It has been anything but that the past six months.

The stream that used to meander through Mills' pasture has gone dry, apparently an unforeseen result of runoff control measures taken by a developer building an 1,800-home planned community on three sides of his property.

General Growth Properties, which acquired the project with its purchase of the Rouse Co., is turning what had been a thousand-acre turf farm into what the developer's Web site calls "the most rewarding, enriching community that Prince George's County, Md., had ever seen." It used to be the estate of Oden Bowie, onetime governor of Maryland and the city's namesake.

But as one of the last farmers left in this rapidly developing area, the soft-spoken 45-year-old Mills said he has been deprived, rather than rewarded, by the changing landscape around him.

"I'm like a dinosaur here," he said.

Along with the stream, the well he used to water his 12 cows went dry in November. He has managed to sustain his herd by tapping into a fire hydrant down the road, with the permission of local officials. He fills a drinking trough from a fire hose that's stretched across his neighbors' yards.

"If you cut off your water, you can't run a farm," he said, simply.

Nobody seems able to explain just how his well and the stream went dry, though local, state and federal officials agree that it was an unintended consequence of work done by the developer - and approved by various levels of government - to prevent polluted runoff from the new Fairwood community. The developer has been ordered to remedy "the unauthorized diversion of all water" caused by its storm-water pond and drains.

"We don't understand exactly what happened, but apparently there is some kind of short-circuit here in the hydrology somewhere, according to Mr. Mills," said Darwin Feheley, regional water compliance chief for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"This was a natural, beautiful wetland," Mills said, showing a visitor the debris-strewn ditch that once carried water through his pasture, and the grassy meadow beyond his fence where he said herons once waded. "I don't think this is supposed to happen," he added.

Several calls to Albert Edwards, identified on the development Web site as development director for the project, were not returned. A General Growth spokesman in Chicago referred a reporter to Douglas M. Godine, the company's general manager for Columbia. He did not return a call.

Mills said he's just trying to take care of the land his parents have owned since the 1970s. They also have farmland in Mitchellville, he said.

"It's a modest enterprise in the path of a speeding train," Fred Tutman, the Patuxent r4iverkeeper, said of Mills' farm and the development engulfing it. A county resident himself, he has been attempting to help Mills.

Prince George's rural heritage is disappearing, Tutman said, as development finally booms in a suburb of Washington that had been slow to grow.

"Speeding trains keep mowing down the farms," Tutman said. "I, too, am an African-American guy living on a farm surrounded by increasing growth, and an unconcerned establishment that thinks we ought to dry up and blow away."

Despite several meetings of officials and the developer over the past six months, there's been no permanent solution to the water needs of Mills' cattle. Nor has there been even temporary help for the turtles, frogs and other wildlife that used to frequent the stream and the wetland beside his farm.

Last week, as if on cue, dozens of them abandoned their parched habitat and attempted to crawl, hop or slither across two-lane Church Road, apparently heading toward the large storm-water pond collecting runoff from the development.

Many did not make it. Pam Cooper, who lives just down Church Road, happened upon the carnage of crushed turtles and other critters.

"It was like driving over rumble strips. It was awful," said Cooper, who heads the Western Shore Conservancy, a group dedicated to preserving natural areas. She said she and some volunteers managed to save about 15 turtles, at least one snake and some frogs, but about 30 box and painted turtles were already roadkill.

"This didn't have to happen," she complained, faulting government officials for not acting sooner to restore the wetland - and not anticipating that the wildlife that lived there would wander into harm's way in its quest for new homes.

Mills said he was out of town when the wildlife exodus occurred. The broken shells of six or eight turtles lie in the grass on his side of the road. Officials have now erected a low, black plastic fence along the pavement to discourage any more animals from trying to cross. Mills said he has seen only one large turtle since then.

A spokeswoman for Prince George's County's Department of Environmental Resources, which approved the developer's plan for controlling runoff from the construction site, said her agency has been working with state and federal regulators to resolve it.

The developer's plans were reviewed and approved by county and other regulators, said Carol Terry, spokeswoman for Prince George's Department of Environmental Resources. But, she added, "There was no idea that it was going to hinder the stream in any way."

State Sen. Leo E. Green, a Democrat who represents the Bowie area of Prince George's County, said he has been frustrated with the time it has taken to resolve the problem since Mills contacted him for help last fall.

"We've been bugging 'em, bugging 'em and bugging 'em," Green said of officials and the developer.

"He's the only cattle farm I think I have in my whole district," Green said of Mills.

Officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment said that county officials bear primary responsibility for controlling storm-water runoff from development sites.

Jack Bowen, head of compliance for the MDE's water management administration, said his agency has been awaiting the outcome of negotiations between the farmer and the developer before deciding what, if any, enforcement action to take.

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has overall responsibility for protecting wetlands and navigable waters, wrote a letter ordering the developer to restore water to the wetland and to Mills.

"What probably has taken the longest in this whole process is finding out how to fix it," said Sandra A. Zelen, enforcement program manager for the Army Corps' Baltimore District.

Zelen directed the developer to regrade some land in an attempt to channel runoff back into the wetland and possibly recharge Mills' well. Meanwhile, she also ordered the company to sink two new, solar-powered wells - one to replenish the wetland and one to furnish water for Mills' cattle. The wetland well is to be installed by the end of June, but there is no deadline for Mills' well.

But Mills has balked. The developer wants him to take title to the wetland, he said, and won't guarantee that the wells will work for any length of time. The Army Corps letter states that Mills must document that he will bear responsibility for monitoring and maintaining the well intended to keep the wetland wet. Among other things, he said, he fears he could be held liable if the wetland goes dry again.

"They want closure, and the pressure is on for closure," Mills said, likening the negotiations between himself and the developer to David and Goliath.

Tutman said Mills just wants back what he lost - a plentiful, reliable source of water.

"I'm not trying to fight this guy," Mills said of General Growth's representative, "but I've got to stand my ground. This land was passed to me by my parents. I can't let this guy come to my neighborhood and push me around."

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