In rural St. Mary's County, people have long since gotten used to million-dollar weekend homes. They're blase about sky-high listings for anything with a water view, ho-hum about opulent retirement mansions.
But folks near Maryland's southern tip, just north of where the Potomac and the Chesapeake merge, aren't quite sure what to make of a $7.5 million price tag on a secluded 327-acre compound near Dameron that includes three houses, stables, a harness horse training track - plus about 1,000 feet of waterfront.
The place, known as St. Elizabeth's Manor, also comes with an elaborate set of environmental rules that county and state officials say would likely limit the options for any prospective developer at the site along St. Jerome Creek.
The property was highlighted for a national audience in a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal that featured 30 luxury properties located all over the country.
Even in that heady company, which included a 100-acre horse farm in Gettysburg, Pa., priced at $2.95 million and a $3.65 million villa in Illinois, the St. Mary's property stood out with an aerial photograph that showed off its private setting and, more importantly, its waterfront.
Owner Daniel S. Capper, a longtime nurseryman who ran a garden shop in Tysons Corner, Va., bought the St. Mary's farm in 1978. Capper says he has no interest in developing the property himself. He plans to leave that chore to a developer with vision - and a lot of cash.
Capper thinks the location would be good for high-priced homes. In addition, he says, the place would be ideal for a riding school or for stabling horses.
"The price seems a little steep, but you don't find too many 327-acre farms anywhere these days," said Capper, who lives nearby. "I don't think the price tag is out of line when you consider it as a whole."
Go to the Internet and there's a slide show that features barns and fields, a five-bedroom, 44-year-old brick cottage and a closer look at St. Jerome Creek.
"It's an asking price, $7.5 million, but you never know," said Terri Robinson, the Washington real estate agent who is handling the property. "This property was originally part of an 8,000-acre tract owned by Lord Calvert."
Since the property has not been sold, St. Mary's officials say they know little about Capper's plans, beyond what the zoning allows.
"It's right at the headwaters of St. Jerome Creek, just two miles from Point Lookout, " said Francis Jack Russell, president of the county's board of commissioners. "We have an owner who wants to sell a tract of land in a real estate market that has cooled off considerably. We still have a surplus of houses, if you look around."
Russell and other officials expect the real estate industry to rebound with a push from new arrivals at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, part of a nationwide reshuffling of military personnel. With a population of about 99,000 expected to rise, the average home price of $335,000 isn't likely to fall, Russell said.
Kent Mountford, former chief scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency's bay program, says any new development on St. Jerome Creek could degrade the bay tributary.
"Over the years, I've known that creek very well," said Mountford, a Calvert County resident. "As the upper portion of a watershed, it's very important what happens there. All of these kinds of changes are negative for a watershed."
County planners say about one-third of the 372-acre farm is located in the critical area within 1,000 feet of St. Jerome Creek, which empties into the bay. The other portion is zoned as a rural protection area. At most, planners think, three dozen or so homes could be built.
"On a hunch, I'd say they wouldn't be able to get more than five lots on the critical area portion, 40 lots on the other part - but that would depend on how much of that land will [percolate for septic systems]," said Phil Shire, the county's deputy planning director.
"That's why there have never been many houses built in that area in the past," said Shire. "We have a big push on now to preserve farmland and open space by directing growth to developed areas where there are water and sewer and other services."