As fire investigators search for a person of interest in an alleged arson at an Anne Arundel County park Friday, some county officials and environmental advocates are left to wonder what could have been.
The 6,000-square-foot farmhouse set ablaze Friday was one of the last — and largest — relics of the expansive waterfront estate, which dates to the mid-1900s and preceded what is now the latest addition to Quiet Waters Park. The county acquired in 2019 the 19-acre parcel, dubbed Quiet Waters Retreat, for about $8 million with the help of Chesapeake Conservancy and the Navy.
Park officials touted the property’s history, but leadership at the county Department of Recreation and Parks and the nonprofit conservation group were most excited about its potential. They were still weighing what to do with the land, which extends county-owned shoreline by some 1,800 feet. Would the five existing buildings serve as office space for the conservation group? As educational facilities?
“Obviously this was quite the setback,” said Jessica Leys, deputy director of recreation and parks.
Fire investigators determined the fire over the weekend was set intentionally around the same time there were reports of two teenagers trespassing on the property.
The 19-acre parcel wasn’t available for the public to access freely, only guided tours. But park rangers had been receiving reports of teenagers hopping the fence and trespassing, Leys said.
Capt. Russ Davies, a fire department spokesman, said Tuesday that investigators need the public’s help identifying a person of interest in their probe into who set ablaze the old farmhouse.
Fire officials publicized a video and still shots of the person who they want to question in relation to the arson, which ignited a fire that required scores of firefighters, apparatuses and tanked water to bring it under control.
The images show a young male wearing a dark Adidas sweatshirt and light-colored pants walking past a white fence. The person appears to have earbuds on, with the white wires leading to a device he clutched in his right hand.
It’s unclear exactly what role this person played in the fire.
Davis couldn’t say whether the person of interest was one of two juveniles reportedly in the vacant building. Firefighters had scrambled to search the burning building only to find it vacant and to learn later the two youths were safe.
Investigators encourage anybody with information to contact department’s Fire and Explosives Investigation Unit. Callers can remain anonymous by dialing 410-222-8477.
It took some 76 firefighters from multiple agencies about 90 minutes to bring the blaze under control. And it was a tricky operation, as officials said limited access allowed only one engine to drive onto the property. Other firefighters had to lug heavy gear about 1,500 feet from Forest Hill Drive. There was no public water in the area.
Officials estimate the structure to be a total loss, Davies said. There was damage on all three levels — the basement, the first floor and the attic — with a partial ceiling collapse.
In addition to the main farmhouse, the estate features a guest house, two garages and an abandoned boathouse. Leys said the property was damaged when an EF-1 Tornado cut through the Annapolis area in early September. Downed trees blocked guided tours from walking onto the retreat. One tree fell on the smaller of two garages.
The estate traces its roots to Edward and Lillian “Patty” Bishop, a wealthy couple who owned the farm from 1938 to 1975 and lived on it during the summer as retreat from the hot Florida sun. The Buser family tended the farm and lived in one of the houses.
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“The (department) is saddened by the destruction of property at Quiet Waters,” Leys said. “We will continue to work with our partners to make sure the property is safe for access.”
In a statement, Joel Dunn, president and CEO of Chesapeake Conservancy, said the nonprofit is assisting the county in assessing the damage to the county land and buildings, and how to move forward. He said the project has faced adversity before.
“We’re wondering what challenges could be next for this important project. First a pandemic, then a tornado, and now a fire,” Dunn said. “Nevertheless, we are undaunted in achieving our shared vision for expanding the park for recreation and wildlife and creating a collaborative meeting space for environmental conservation groups and the public.”
Chris Trumbauer, a senior adviser to County Executive Steuart Pittman, said the county had just completed paperwork for up to $1 million in federal support for the property and was in the final stages of acquiring money from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“The timing of (the fire) is certainly unfortunate,” he said.
Trumbauer said he had to break the news to Pittman, sharing a photo of the flames and smoke billowing from the farmhouse and its front-facing white columns. It’s the same property Pittman raved about on a New Year’s Day hike which offered the public a first glimpse. He told the outdoor enthusiasts they’d be overwhelmed by its beauty. As they explored the new views, many were.
“He was shocked and saddened...” Trumbauer said.