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'Green' hall, blooming town


The new Highland Beach town hall is the greenest building for miles around, Mayor Crystal R. Chissell said before addressing a throng of residents Friday at the building's dedication.

In truth, the color of the Shaker-plain gathering place is closer to gray.

But what the mayor meant was that the shingled structure is an environmentally state-of-the-art facility designed with "green features."

The 2,200-square-foot building with a garden roof is as energy-efficient as a 21st century building can be. Touches as simple as windows that open and natural light give the interior a light, airy feel.

The new town hall is a triumph for the all-volunteer government of Highland Beach, which in the past has been a flourishing summer retreat for well-established African-American families from as far away as Tuskegee, Ala.

"I'd like this to be a lovefest," Chissell, 44, told the 150 people who attended the ribbon-cutting, including Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "Since we aren't paying people, we have to give them love."

The town historian, John Leak, had recorded the razing of an old makeshift town hall and the progress of the new one in photographs.

"My grandfather bought our house in 1919, and I returned in 1976," Leak said as he took a break from videotaping Friday's dedication.

Funded by state and county grants, the structure took about a year to build and cost nearly $500,000. It replaced a crumbling caretaker's cottage, which barely fit standing-room-only town meetings.

Rain gardens and a storm water management system were recently added to the beachfront community, which was hit hard by Tropical Storm Isabel in September 2003.

Many of the gardens were planted by residents. The gardens and the storm water system are expected to reduce pollution and runoff.

"The town hall is a part of an environmental protection strategy and vision, since we are bordered by the Chesapeake Bay, Oyster Creek and Black Walnut Creek," said Chissell, a charismatic lawyer for the state agency responsible for environmental services.

Only a 20-minute drive from Annapolis, the scenic waterfront spot was founded in 1893 by Frederick Douglass' family as a place for African-American educators, writers, actors, doctors and leaders to socialize in the summer months. All nearby beach resorts were strictly segregated.

It was a magnet for families, mostly from Baltimore and Washington, many of whom still own their original homes.

Raymond Langston, the former mayor, said the town hall represents this generation's contribution to the community, with a past as rich as any in history.

Civil rights leader W.E.B. Dubois came to visit. Douglass, late in life, said that as a free man, he could see across the bay to where he was born in slavery, near St. Michael's. But his dream summer house was not complete when Douglass died in 1895.

Chissell estimated that about 120 people now live in Highland Beach year-round, a citizenry that has become more integrated in recent years.

"The town hall is in keeping with the history of Highland Beach," she said. "Citizens who are accomplished and talented have contributed so much."

Environmental consultant Zora Lathan and William H. Sanders III, a couple who live in the community, lent their professional knowledge and advice to the design, which included monitoring indoor air quality and carbon dioxide emissions. The architect was Aris T. Allen, Chissell said.

"We designed this as a zero-runoff site and we want to spin that [energy] meter backward as much as possible so we produce as much as we use," said Sanders, an Environmental Protection Agency official.

Busch and Del. John Astle, an Annapolis Democrat, who are facing a special session of the General Assembly on BGE rate hikes this week, nodded approvingly.

"This is a big accomplishment for a small community," Chissell said. "It's pivotal that we restore the bay and treat it like a community member."

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