Stoney Demonstration Forest
Harford County Government
The acquisition is notable alone for its sheer size as there are very few, if any, undeveloped properties of this size in common ownership along I-95 in Maryland.
In late December 2020, 905 acres of hardwood forest were permanently protected and added to Maryland’s Stoney Demonstration Forest in southern Harford County. This significant conservation success is the result of a multi-year partnership between Maryland Department of Natural Resources, The Conservation Fund, Harford Land Trust, and Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The property, now known as the Grays Run Tract of Stoney Demonstration Forest, sits in between Creswell and Aberdeen with I-95 to the southeast and Carsins Run Road to the northwest. It will be managed by the Maryland Forest Service along with the existing 318-acre James Run Tract of Stoney Forest nearby.
The acquisition is notable alone for its sheer size as there are very few, if any, undeveloped properties of this size in common ownership along I-95 in Maryland. Following the purchase of the property by real estate developer Victor Posner in 1979, it was widely assumed that the property would be developed for residential or commercial uses.
The Grays Run Tract provides Harford County with innumerable ecological benefits including unbroken woodland habitat, stormwater absorption and filtration, and carbon storage. The forest offers tremendous scenic value and will soon be an important outdoor recreation space in central Maryland.
The Grays Run Tract is part of the once-extensive timberlands owned by Sydney D. Peverley. According to the Harford County Land Records, the Peverley family acquired much of the land in the 1920s.
Appearing somewhat like an island from above, a section in the middle of the property was quarried for crushed stone from 1958 to 1972. According to a 1985 zoning hearing application, D. M. Stoltzfus and Son operated the quarry and stopped extraction following what they deemed to be prohibitively expensive new Environmental Protection Agency rules. Thereafter to the present day, the area was used for asphalt manufacturing, and remains under separate ownership.
Well after the construction of I-95, Victor Posner purchased the property in the late 1970s to add to his vast real estate holdings for prospective development. Posner, originally from Baltimore, self-reported in 1952 that he was the largest home builder in Maryland. His self-described motto was, “I buy by the mile and sell by the inch.” Posner developed more than 1,000 acres in Harford County alone, including Monmouth Meadows, Village of McLean, Greenbrier Hills, and Holly Woods.
During Posner’s ownership, the property’s zoning was reviewed on several occasions to increase the classification from agricultural to high-density residential.
The Grays Run Tract falls within Harford County’s Tier IV Designated Area, meaning that no public water and sewer was planned to extend to the property. This designation limited permissible development on the property to a total of 21 home lots.
Following his death in 2002, the property was managed by Brenda Nestor, Posner’s business associate, who also intended to develop the property. Nestor, a Miami resident, wished to take back ownership of the property after the Hollywood One LLC bankruptcy.
The Conservation Fund, a national environmental nonprofit operating under agreement with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, settled on the Grays Run Tract in July 2020. The Conservation Fund and Harford Land Trust, a local conservation nonprofit, began pursuing the property in partnership after its owner, Hollywood One LLC, declared bankruptcy in 2018.
The conservation partners doggedly pursued the property through the Miami-based bankruptcy court proceedings. Numerous large-scale developers, including Brenda Nestor, the principal of Hollywood One LLC, attempted to purchase the property from the bankruptcy trustee.
The bankruptcy trustee hired the Baltimore office of CBRE, Inc., a global commercial real estate company, to market the property. Materials pitched the property as an “ideal land opportunity for development”, including residential, distribution facilities, and industrial warehouses. Harford County was also brazenly described in the marketing materials as a pro-development location with a history of “fast tracking the approvals required” for industrial development.
At multiple points, it appeared that the team’s attempts to preserve the property would fail. Two developers were awarded contracts for the property, but both failed to settle. The Conservation Fund ultimately emerged as the successful bidder at $4.6 million in May 2020.
After taking ownership, The Conservation Fund and Harford Land Trust spent the second half of 2020 resolving on-site issues stemming from the many decades of absentee property management.
The State took ownership of the Grays Run Tract at the end of December 2020, formally joining it with Stoney Demonstration Forest. Funds for the purchase came from Maryland’s Program Open Space, the State’s park and open space program funded by a 0.5% State property transfer tax.
The property’s tract name comes from the stream, Grays Run, which winds through the property from north to south for a mile and a half. Grays merges with Cranberry Run and feeds into the Bush River just south of Route 40. There are also numerous unnamed tributaries with associated headwater wetlands on the western side of the property.
There is no evidence that the Grays Run Tract was cleared for agriculture, presumably because of the poor soils and rocky terrain. Prior owners logged the property multiple times during the last century, including a high-grade cutting in the early 2000s during which some of the most valuable timber was removed. The property is crisscrossed by dirt logging roads with occasional landings where the logs were loaded onto trucks. Patches of immature trees are reminders of past timbering.
Nonetheless, the property remains important habitat for forest interior dwelling birds, freshwater aquatic species, and a host of amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. Local birders expect the Grays Run Tract is likely home to a host of species including ovenbirds, pileated woodpecker, barred owl, and woodcock.
The nearby James Run Tract is known for its plethora of wildflowers including several rare species. Given the similar terrain, there is likely to be abundant wildflowers at the Grays Run Tract as well.
Additionally, anglers report large numbers of yellow perch and largemouth bass in Grays Run downstream from the property.
The forest is highlighted prominently in Harford County’s recent Green Infrastructure Plan as a “hub” and an important conservation candidate. The vast forest provides valuable stormwater management, helping to curb nutrient and sediment runoff that would otherwise reach the Bush River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.
Notably, the property backs up to and buffers the one-acre site of the Bush Forest Chapel, constructed in 1769. According to the Maryland Historical Trust, the Chapel was the oldest Methodist meeting house in Harford County, the second oldest in Maryland, and the third oldest in America.
The church was constructed in the forest on the road from Stepney to Carsins Run. Its name, Bush Chapel, was taken from the nearby town of Bush, which was the county seat of Harford County from 1773 to 1782 and the location of the signing of the historic Bush Declaration.
Stoney Demonstration Forest and future plans
The property will be managed by the Maryland Forest Service as part of the existing Stoney Demonstration State Forest. The 318-acre James Run Tract of Stoney Forest was gifted to the State in 1981. It is not contiguous with the new Grays Run Tract but is located close by on the north side of Nova Scotia Road, west of Tower Road in Creswell.
Throughout the 1980s and mid-1990s the Maryland Forest Service managed the James Run Tract to demonstrate numerous silviculture techniques, including commercial timber production, habitat management, and outdoor recreation. A loop trail, accessible from Nova Scotia Road, leads visitors past numbered markers corresponding to past management practices. The State also allows seasonal hunting on the property permitted through a public lottery system.
As with most large park acquisitions, the State has not yet developed a master plan for the Grays Run Tract. Recreation opportunities will undoubtedly be available in the future at the new Grays Run Tract, including hiking trails and hunting.
When looking at a satellite view of Harford County, Stoney Forest stands out as a conspicuous dark green shape in an otherwise highly fragmented area. In many ways, it is nothing short of a miracle that more than 900 acres on I-95 in central Maryland remained in a natural state. It was not a question of if the property would be developed, but when.
Despite now being over 1,200 acres, Stoney Forest is still dwarfed by all but one other Maryland State Forest. But for Harford County, the acquisition is truly momentous. Except for the lands owned by Exelon along the Susquehanna, there are no unpreserved private forests of this size in the county.
The Stoney Forest acquisition is also another example of the importance of Program Open Space, Maryland’s primary source of funding for conserving open space. Program Open Space also provided the bulk of the funding for Harford County and Harford Land Trust’s recent purchase of the 347-acre Belle Vue Farm on Oakington Peninsula.
The Stoney Forest success was the product of a stalwart partnership between public agencies and nonprofits that formed when an unexpected window of opportunity opened. It is widely acknowledged among the parties involved in the transaction that the effort would have likely failed without the unique partnership of visionary public leaders, experienced nonprofit tacticians, and knowledgeable local connections.
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