The US Naval Academy’s proposal to build a new golf course has angered environmentalists

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As the US Naval Academy’s athletic director wrote to the Secretary of the Navy earlier this year When he proposed building a new golf course at Greenbury Point across from the military school in Annapolis, he said he just wanted to disseminate the idea for further study.

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

Shortly after word of the proposal broke this spring, hikers, bird watchers and environmentalists launched a passionate campaign to preserve the Greenbury Point nature reserve, which overlooks the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay. The verdant patch of earth is visible from the city, and its three radio towers — remnants of a structure that once communicated with naval submarines under the Atlantic — have become landmarks for sailors exiting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Opponents fear 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 more advanced than the Navy cares to admit, involving well-connected Navy veterans and wealthy graduates will have an outsize impact on whether it gets built.

“There are many people here who love and use this place: elderly people, children who are pulled in small wagons. . . People who walk dogs, people who train for marathons. . . People fish,” said Joel Dunn, president and executive director 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, visit it and enjoy it. The threat of taking it away with a private golf course is really worrying for 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, who urged him to thwart the plan. A poll commissioned by the Severn River Association and the Chesapeake Conservancy found more than two-thirds opposed the idea.

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

Although several opponents said they have long respected the Navy’s efforts to balance its mission with protecting the bay, they have criticized the proposal, saying it lacks transparency.

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

While Gladchuk was not surprised by the outcry, he described the response as alarmist and entirely premature in what he describes as the equivalent of a trial balloon.

“There is no bulldozer, there is no plan, there is no architectural design — there is no architect,” Gladchuk said in an interview. “We looked at Greenbury Point and said, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be interesting to explore the feasibility of building a great recreational facility at that point?’ ”

In his Feb. 15 letter, Gladchuk — 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 land to be leased from the Navy – would go well with the newly renovated and redesigned golf course. The overhaul that started in 2020 and cost $10 million and also includes plans for a new clubhouse with dining area.

“I ask for your support,” Gladchuk says in the letter, a copy of which was provided to the Washington Post. “I look forward to visiting you to show you our conceptual plans for the course.”

But there hasn’t been a meeting yet, and not even a map of a new golf course, Gladchuk said. However, in his vision, approximately 280 acres of Greenbury Point Conservancy and adjacent land would be developed into an 18-hole golf course surrounded by nature trails, a boat launch, bird-watching blinds, fitness facilities and other features. Areas of contaminated soil from past naval activities would be cleaned up and levees raised in anticipation of higher sea levels due to climate change.

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

Hundreds if not thousands of golfers use the existing privately funded course, including midshipmen in college, college and physical education programs; active duty military personnel of all branches of service, 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 a new course, he said, the process would require multiple layers of bureaucratic review, environmental and historical studies consistent with federal law, and extensive public comment. It would also have to take into account a binding, decades-old agreement by the Environmental Protection Agency and state governments based 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 possible.

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Meanwhile, his proposal moves up the chain of command beginning 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, a spokesman for the Washington Navy District, said nothing had changed since Gladchuk’s letter and referred further questions to the Navy FAQ page.

Jennifer Crews-Carey, a retired Annapolis police officer who helped organize opposition to a new golf course, said opponents have consistently pressed the Navy to learn 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 formed to promote and support the sport of golf and to operate the Academy’s existing golf course.

NAGA generated more than $2.5 million in revenue from green fees, entry fees, golf cart rentals and more than $1.6 million in membership dues in 2018, according to the latest public financial statements. The financial statements estimate the property’s value at nearly $5.8 million.

There are 510 dues-paying members, split evenly between military and civilians, with another 118 on a waiting list, Gladchuk said. The enrollment fee — $22,500 for a family membership — is greatly reduced for retired military personnel paying $5,500. Green fees are also reduced.

In addition to the golf course, the Navy property across the Severn River from the Academy supports several other uses including rugby fields and a rifle and pistol range. Much of the 827 acres were purchased by the Navy in 1909 as farmland to support the academy’s dining hall.

From 1918 Greenbury Point became a site for radio research and transmission until satellite communications rendered it obsolete. The radio towers were shut down and all but three were demolished.

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Greenbury Point has been managed as a nature reserve since 1999. During a recent tour, Dunn and a group of conservationists pointed out the rich variety of wildlife there – although part of the preserve was closed during use of the shooting range.

Butterflies hovered over stalks of milkweed, and an indigo garland hung from a treetop at the edge of a rugged field. Hundreds of creatures, including osprey, deer, tree frogs, turtles, and, yes, ticks, live on the property, whose nearby waters support oysters and other marine life.

The land was inhabited by humans as early as 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 that people can tap into,” said Dunn, who directs the Chesapeake Conservancy. “We all care about the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay, we want people to invest in their future and we are spending billions of dollars to restore them. But if you can’t see it and enjoy it, you won’t vote for it.”

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