Economy puts future of sanctuary in doubt

The Baltimore Sun

BOZMAN -This Eastern Shore estate, with its breathtaking waterfront, was supposed to be preserved forever, a natural gem that thousands of schoolchildren could visit to learn about the outdoors. That's what Jean Ellen duPont Shehan said she wanted when she donated her wealthy family's hunting preserve to the National Audubon Society 12 years ago.

It is easy to see why she felt that way. Even on a frigid, wind-swept day, the land teems with wildlife. A reclusive wild turkey scuttles away into the brush as a car rolls down the lane. Hawks swoop over grassy meadows in search of mice. Geese and ducks hug the expansive shoreline.

Audubon officials call the 950-acre tract glorious and impressive. But its future is in doubt. Pinched for funds like many nonprofits, Audubon says it must sell the place because the group can't afford to keep it up.

Shehan had been paying Audubon roughly $500,000 a year to maintain the property and as rent so she could continue to use part of it. But her health and finances have eroded, and the annual payments she had been making have dried up.

Audubon would like to sell the sanctuary to the state or to Talbot County so that the public could continue to enjoy its natural charms and access to Broad Creek. But governments are hard up, too, these days. If necessary, Audubon officials say, they will try to find a private buyer who will agree not to develop the land. But that might not be possible.

No one saw this coming, says Jacqui Bonomo, Audubon's executive director for Maryland and the District of Columbia. "There's just a convergence of a lot of negative factors right now, so we're trying to play the hand that we've been dealt."

The sanctuary's uncertain fate worries neighbors and those concerned about the inexorable loss of open space in Maryland.

"At the very least, we really would like to ensure that the open space remains," said Beth Jones of the Bay Hundred Foundation, which works to preserve the history and environment of the Talbot peninsula on which the sanctuary is located.

Others worry that tens of thousands of public and private dollars have been spent enhancing property that the public may lose the chance to enjoy.

A state Department of Natural Resources official says his agency has been approached about acquiring the land, but that funds are scarce and the Audubon tract is not a priority.

"We'd love to buy them all," said Paul Peditto, director of the wildlife and heritage service. "But there's a limited amount of money."

Others point out that more than half the money set aside to preserve land in Maryland was spent recently to acquire five large tracts around the Chesapeake Bay, for a whopping $71 million. Those purchases were controversial, as some critics questioned spending to buy land at a time when state workers were being furloughed.

Talbot County's parks and recreation director, Rick Towle, said local officials have been approached as well and would like to see the sanctuary remain open to the public. But the county lacks the funds likely needed to buy it, he said. The mid-Shore county has no money of its own budgeted for land preservation, and is slated to get just $48,000 from the state this year as its share of real estate transfer taxes earmarked for such purchases.

"It comes down to sheer economics," said Towle.

The state Department of Assessments and Taxation lists the land and its six old houses as worth $8.5 million. Audubon officials aren't saying what price they want for the sanctuary, but one source familiar with the property suggested its value on the market would be $18 million or more.

Part of the state's reluctance may be the property's history of being farmed and managed for years as a hunting preserve, where family and friends pursued foxes on horseback. State officials have vowed to focus their land purchases on tracts with high ecological value, harboring rare plants and animals or other unusual natural features.

"It's beautiful," William Richkus, chairman of Maryland Audubon's board of directors, said of the sanctuary. "But the pine forests are all planted pine. ... After all, it was managed as English countryside for years." Though the Shehan gift was originally seen as a foundation upon which Audubon could build a statewide organization, Richkus said, it has proven to be "our problem sanctuary."

The Maryland Audubon maintains offices on the property, and society volunteers have conducted counts of birds and Monarch butterflies amid the 200 acres of meadows and 300 acres of woods. The sanctuary is open to the public on certain Sundays and Mondays.

The sanctuary's troubles began before the recession set in, but they have been compounded by the wave of economic woes.

Spokesmen for Audubon and for Shehan shy from pointing fingers. Audubon officials say they agreed to accept the land from Shehan only after the wealthy philanthropist pledged to provide the funds needed to maintain it. But she never put that promise in writing, they say.

Shehan, 85, is unavailable to comment, according to her Miami lawyer, Bruce Stone. He said she did set up a trust fund in 1997 to pay for keeping up the sanctuary, and she paid Audubon to lease part of the land so she could continue to live there. Stone says he is unsure how long the fund was supposed to provide income, though he acknowledges it was named the Decade Trust. But in any case, he says, the trust's investments were devastated by the dot-com bust in the stock market several years ago and never recovered. Shehan also stopped paying rent after moving permanently to Florida two years ago.

Stone said his client harbored no hard feelings toward Audubon, though she had occasionally questioned how the group managed the property.

"Obviously, we would have liked to have seen the development of programs [there] to accelerate, bringing in more schoolchildren and the like," he said. "But unfortunately, with the collapse of the market, that wasn't going to happen."

Some, though, say they were shocked to learn the Shehan tract might be sold. Just two years ago, several groups collaborated with the state to create 58 acres of wetlands on the tract at a cost of about $98,000, according to Kirk Mantay, a biologist with Ducks Unlimited who coordinated the project. Nearly half of the funds came from the state, he said, and about $29,000 from a nonprofit that stages the annual fall waterfowl festival in Easton.

Mantay said Audubon officials had assured the wetland project's funders that the society intended to hang onto the sanctuary. "Everybody was surprised to find out it was for sale," he added.

The Ducks Unlimited biologist said that some people offered to raise funds to help Audubon maintain the sanctuary, but the society's officers declined.

That has left some wondering why, if the society really wants the land preserved, it doesn't simply give it to the state or some other group capable of managing it.

Debi Osborne, Audubon's real estate director, said that because of the way in which Shehan made her gift, the New York-based conservation society can't simply give the land away without owing millions in capital gains taxes. The deed is held by a corporation that Shehan donated to the society. Locking up the property's development potential through a conservation easement also would require that taxes be paid.

Besides, Bonomo said, Shehan's payments were used for more than maintenance of the sanctuary. They helped pay for other activities of Maryland Audubon, including its educational center in Baltimore's Patterson Park. The group also has another sanctuary, 400-acre Pickering Creek near Easton, which has been the focus of much of its nature education efforts. Selling the Shehan land would generate funds to keep those other state programs going.

Stone said Shehan hopes her Shore gift can still be preserved and kept open for the public to enjoy but understands if Audubon needs to sell it.

"We're just sitting back and hoping that it will end up in the same type of charitable hands that it was given to," he said, "and that it will always be conserved and made accessible to the public. It's just such a special property."

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