CALIFORNIA, MD – Citizens in the “Mother County of Maryland,” some of whose ancestry harks back to the 1600s, want their voices heard by government. When government turns an unhearing ear, St. Mary’s Countians know who shouts loudest.
For three decades, the Potomac River Association has turned up the volume on politicians and developers. From its first clash against a proposed oil refinery to its most recent project — the public acquisition of Myrtle Point — the group has united friend and foe in efforts to preserve Southern Maryland’s heritage.
“They’re a bunch of tough warriors,” said Daisy Pegg, life- long county resident.
Mary L. Jansson’s family came to the county in the ’50s. Their historic farm is just five miles from where Steuart Petroleum Co. wanted its refinery. At first Jansson thought she might move if the project were built. But she realized this was a turning point for her adopted county. Jansson — who Pegg calls “a bulldog” and “the heart and soul of preservation in St. Mary’s County” — decided she would rather fight than flee.
However, when Jansson and her neighbor, Kitty Barnes, founded the Potomac River Association in 1967, they had no idea this was just the first of many battles.
The oil company had federal, state, and county officials on its side. It had boosted the area’s economy with jobs and tax money.
“This was big oil,” Jansson said. “Part of an oil refinery group that got together to push through this test case.”
If Steuart won, Jansson reasoned, others would follow. The association circulated petitions, wrote letters, held meetings and lobbied politicians.
The project was shelved. But in 1974, county government pushed it to a local referendum.
State Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, was a 25-year-old congressional aide when he joined the struggle against Steuart. He recalls a state senator and a local newspaper publisher, who had nearly come to blows in the past, embraced when they heard the vote had gone against the oil company.
“It didn’t seem to matter who you were,” Dyson said, “you were able to come together on this issue.”
Jack Witten came to the county as a civilian working for the Navy. He entered the Steuart fray and has been in the association ever since, serving as president in the ’70s and ’80s.
Witten said his group has proved “that we could take on giants and win if we could rally the right support.”
Rallying that support can rub some the wrong way.
Barbara Thompson, County Commission president, said when the association advertised in local newspapers railing against an Environmental Protection Agency plan to clean up a toxic site by burning the soil, it made unsubstantiated claims.
Although it succeeds “in getting the community mobilized,” Thompson said, “in the process, the group sometimes makes enemies.”
Current association President Erik Jansson, who is Mary’s son, responded: “You have to do what you have to do.”
He reinforced his own point by noting the association’s most recent victory: “With Myrtle Point, we had to stand on our heads and wiggle our toes.”
Myrtle Point is a waterfront area with archaeological sites and rich flora and fauna. It was to be a huge resort development, but backers ran out of money in the ’80s and the property fell into federal hands.
At first, local government refused to consider preservation. Myrtle Point was zoned for development; they wanted it developed. But the association garnered grass roots support and pushed officials to finally buy the property this year.
Now the group must help determine how the park will evolve. Some residents want it cleared for playing fields. But the association prefers a “hands-off” approach.
“Here,” said Treasurer Orvin “Pappy” Wilhite, “nature is paramount.”
To that end, the group may sponsor an essay contest among area schoolchildren to foment ideas for the park. It is also co- sponsoring, with the Sierra Club, a March 15 nature walk.
Both groups hope when people see the untouched park, they will appreciate what could have been lost.
Thirty years ago, St. Mary’s County was sleepy, with one- lane roads and rolling farmland. The Potomac was “a crystal clear river where you could see your toes,” said County Commissioner Lawrence D. Jarboe.
Since the mid-century construction of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, about 1,000 people a year have flowed into the county. This “immigrant” population seems especially concerned about their community.
“We think it will always be the way it was – pristine and green,” Pegg, who only recently joined the association, said. “The newcomers see what’s really happening and want to preserve it.” Without the association, observed Del. John F. Slade III, D- St. Mary’s, “We’d probably have oil refineries up and down the Potomac and housing developments from one end of the county to the other.” -30-