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Arson Suspected at Development Opposed by Environment Groups

In Maryland, at least 41 homes are damaged at a dense construction site near ecologically sensitive wetlands south of Washington.

December 07, 2004|Richard Rainey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An early morning fire Monday damaged 41 homes in a development under construction near an ecologically sensitive area, and both local and federal authorities said they suspected arson.

At least four separate fires burned 12 homes to the ground, heavily damaged eight more and melted the siding off dozens of others at the Hunters Brooke subdivision near Indian Head, Md., about 25 miles south of Washington, officials said. No injuries were reported, and none of the homes was occupied. Damage was estimated at $10 million.

In what he described as the largest conflagration in the area's history, Potomac Heights, Md., Volunteer Fire Chief Scott Creelman said authorities had detected signs of an accelerant, but he said he would provide no additional details because of the ongoing investigation.

Fires in "four of the dwellings were a result of the arsons," Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor said in a television interview, adding that he could not rule out the possibility of eco-terrorism.

In recent years, environmental groups had strongly criticized the development for encroaching on a nearby magnolia bog, a sensitive wetland containing a number of rare plants.

Barry Maddox, a spokesman for the FBI Baltimore field office, said it was still too soon to identify suspects. "Every house is a crime scene," he said, "so I would say it'll be several days of work" to complete the investigation.

Environmental groups that had filed lawsuits opposing the development said they had no knowledge of the fires. Asked on CNN whether his group was involved, Bob DeGroot president of the Maryland Alliance for Greenway Improvement and Conservation, a consortium of 41 environmental organizations in the state, replied: "Absolutely not, and I don't believe any of the environmental groups in Maryland would be involved."

The Sierra Club also condemned arson as a tactical tool. "It's illegal, and it's counterproductive" to his group's goals of pursuing nature conservancy through democratic channels, said spokesman Eric Antebi.

As the U.S. population continues to expand into once-pristine areas, the use of violence by ecoterrorists against housing developments has gained national attention.

In February 2001, three teenagers who said they supported the Earth Liberation Front, a militant environmental group, pleaded guilty to burning down homes under construction on Long Island, N.Y. In November 2001, a Phoenix man who said he wanted to save the desert from housing developers admitted that he had set fire to eight homes.

In August and September 2003, the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for torching housing developments in the San Diego area, causing millions of dollars in damage.

Charles County, Md., where Monday's fires occurred, has nearly tripled its population since 1970, becoming a focus of growing antipathy between developers and environmentalists in recent years. Its location along the Potomac River within commuting distance of Washington has made it one of the state's fastest-growing areas, with a projected growth rate of about 2% a year.

The now-charred subdivision stands at the argument's epicenter.

The plans for Hunters Brooke and another subdivision, Falcon Ridge, call for 503 homes on 308 acres.

The four- and five-bedroom homes, on quarter-acre lots, sell for between $400,000 and $500,000, a relative bargain in the pricey Washington real estate market.

Opponents of the development decry the dense construction in what was, until recently, a rural area.

"We wouldn't mind homes on five acres," said Ellie Cline, who owns a 300-year-old farmhouse nearby and has joined in a lawsuit opposing the project. "But what they're planning here.... "

They also say the development will harm the 6 1/2-acre Araby magnolia bog, a type of wetland found only in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

This bog's soil mixture and position on a hillside make it unusual, environmentalists say.

But proponents of the project say it will provide a catalyst for growth in the western part of the county, which has suffered from job losses at one of the area's biggest employers, the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

Controversy has dogged the project since its inception in the late 1990s. In a September 2000 report, the Sierra Club singled out Hunters Brooke and Falcon Ridge as the worst example in Maryland of "quintessential sprawl" and condemned the location near the bog as "poorly placed and destructive."

"Everybody's going to be a little more nervous about anything that's going to happen in this neighborhood," said Cline, who said she could see smoke as she walked her dog Monday morning. "It's deplorable."

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