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US Naval Academy proposal to build new golf course angers environmentalists

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When the US Naval Academy athletic director wrote to the Secretary of the Navy earlier this year proposing to build a new golf course on Greenbury Point across from the Annapolis Military School, he said he only wanted to throw the idea out for further study.

Instead, Chet Gladchuk’s pitch became a call to arms.

Shortly after the proposal became known this spring, hikers, birdwatchers and conservationists launched an impassioned campaign to preserve the Greenbury Point Conservation Area overlooking the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay. The patch of green land is visible from the city, and its three radio towers – remnants of a network that once communicated with Navy submarines under the Atlantic Ocean – have become landmarks for sailors cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Opponents fear that an additional 18-hole golf course on the peninsula will destroy important wetlands and forest habitats, pollute the bay and cut off public access to the shore. They also fear the proposal is further along than the Navy will admit and that well-connected Navy veterans and wealthy graduates will have an outsized influence in determining whether it will be built.

“There are a lot of people here who love and use this place: old people, children being pulled in little carts. . . people walking dogs, people training for marathons. . . people who fish,” said Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy. “This is a very special resource for the community, and we are very grateful to the Navy for allowing us to use it, to visit it, to enjoy it. So the threat of prevailing with a private golf course is truly baffling to all of us here.

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Twenty-five environmental organizations – including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Severn Riverkeeper and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters – wrote a letter in May to Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro urging him to kill the plan. A poll commissioned by the Severn River Association and the Chesapeake Conservancy found that more than two-thirds opposed the idea.

A Facebook page called Save Greenbury Point attracted about 2,000 members and about 4,700 people signed a Change.org petition. Letters were sent to members of the Maryland congressional delegation asking them to intervene.

Although several opponents said they had long respected the Navy’s efforts to balance its mission with protecting the bay, they criticized the proposal and what they said was a lack of transparency.

“It’s the typical developer MO,” said Jesse Iliff, executive director of the Severn River Association. “Hide the ball until you’re in the end zone, then spike it.”

Gladchuk, though unsurprised by the outcry, called the response alarmist and extremely premature to what he described as the equivalent of a trial balloon.

“There are no bulldozers, there is no blueprint, there is no architectural design – there is no architect,” Gladchuk said in an interview. “We looked at Greenbury Point and said to ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to study the feasibility of creating a magnificent recreational facility on the point?’ ”

In his Feb. 15 letter, Gladchuk — who is president of the Naval Academy Golf Association (NAGA) and the academy’s athletic director — urged Del Toro to support the project. He said a second golf course – which NAGA would develop on property for lease to the Navy – would fit in well with the recently renovated and redesigned golf course. The redesign, which began in 2020 and cost $10 million, also includes plans for a new pavilion with a dining hall.

“I ask for your support,” Gladchuk said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “I look forward to visiting you to show you our concept plans for the course.”

But there has been no meeting and, so far, not even a map of a new golf course, Gladchuk said. In his imagination, however, approximately 280 acres of the Greenbury Point Conservation Area and adjacent lands would be developed into an 18-hole golf course set among nature trails, a boat launch, awnings bird watching, fitness sites and other features. Areas with soil contaminated by previous Navy activities would be cleared and levees raised in anticipation of sea level rise due to climate change.

“It’s overgrown,” Gladchuk said of the area now. “It’s infested with ticks. The walking trails are full of invasive species. It’s just undeveloped land.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of golfers use the existing privately funded course, including aspirants in varsity, intramural and physical education programs; active military personnel of all branches, including civilian employees; and veterans and academy graduates, Gladchuk said. Members of the public are welcome to play for a fee or become members.

Even if the Navy were to give the green light to take a new course, he said, the process would require multiple levels of bureaucratic review, environmental and historical studies that comply with federal law, and extensive public comment. Consideration should also be given to a decades-long binding agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and state governments in the watershed to restore the bay.

“It would take years to develop,” Gladchuk said.

He also estimates that NAGA would need to raise at least $35 million to make this happen.

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In the meantime, his proposal moves up the chain of command, starting with Naval Support Activity Annapolis, a facility that is part of Naval District Washington and serves the Naval Academy, Greenbury Point and nearby Navy properties. Ed Zeigler, spokesman for the Naval District of Washington, said nothing had changed since Gladchuk’s letter and referred further questions to the Navy. FAQs.

Jennifer Crews-Carey, a retired Annapolis police officer who helped organize opposition to a new golf course, said opponents continue to push the Navy to find out more about the status of the proposal.

“I doubt it’s on a napkin,” said Crews-Carey, 56, of Cape St. Claire.

Under the tax code, the Naval Academy Golf Association is a non-profit social club established to promote and support golf and to operate the existing academy golf course.

NAGA earned over $2.5 million in revenue in 2018 from green fees, initiation fees, golf cart rentals and membership dues of over $1.6 million , according to the latest public financial statements. The financial statement estimates the value of the property at nearly $5.8 million.

There are 510 dues-paying members, split evenly between military and civilians, and another 118 on a waiting list, Gladchuk said. The initiation fee – $22,500 for a family membership – is heavily discounted for retired military members, who pay $5,500. Greens fees are also reduced.

As well as the golf course, the Navy property across the River Severn from the academy supports several other uses including rugby pitches and a rifle and pistol shooting range. Much of the 827 acres was purchased in 1909 by the Navy as farmland to support the dining hall of the academy.

From 1918 Greenbury Point was used as a radio research and transmission site until satellite communications rendered it obsolete. The radio towers were decommissioned and all but three were flattened.

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Since 1999, Greenbury Point has been managed as a conservation area. During a recent tour, Dunn and a group of conservationists highlighted the rich diversity of wildlife there – although part of the conservation area is off limits while the range is in use.

Butterflies fluttered above the milkweed stalks and an indigo bunting hissed from the top of a tree at the edge of a jagged field. Hundreds of creatures, including ospreys, deer, tree frogs, turtles and, yes, ticks, call the site home, whose nearby waters are home to oysters and other marine life.

The land was inhabited by humans 10,000 years ago and settled by Europeans as early as 1649, said Sue Steinbrook, an opposition organizer who also researches the area’s history.

“It’s a rare, rare resource to use,” said Dunn, who runs the Chesapeake Conservancy. “We all care about the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay, we want people to invest in its future, and we are devoting billions of dollars to its restoration. But if you don’t see it and enjoy it, you’re not going to vote for it.