Poplar Is­land pro­ject trou­bles nearby prop­erty owner


Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice

— From the sandy shores of Lowes Wharf Ma­rina on a sunny spring morn­ing, the view of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay couldn’t be clearer.

Paul Zelinske, the owner of the ma­rina, watches the boats sail­ing back and forth in the dis­tance. He’s had this view since 1995, when he and his wife, Tracey, bought the ma­rina prop­erty, where they live full-time.

Zelinske said he and his wife “fell in love with the place” and bought the ma­rina for the “mil­lion-dol­lar view.” Now, tourists and vis­i­tors come each year to stay in one of the 10 guest rooms, eat at the restau­rant and bar or spend time on the beach and en­joy the dusk.

“Every­body says it, I mean they come out here and take pictures ... it’s a spec­tac­u­lar place to watch the sun set,” he said. “It’s re­ally neat.”

But a nearby con­struc­tion pro­ject – the Paul S. Sar­banes Ecosys­tem Restora­tion Pro­ject at Poplar Is­land – is tak­ing away what makes his prop­er­ties spe­cial, he said.

In 2001, the Zelinskes paid about $300,000 to take par­tial own­er­ship of Jef­fer­son Is­land, a piece of land just a 10-minute boat ride away from the ma­rina, and about a half-mile from Poplar Is­land.

A five-bed­room main house and a three-bed­room guest house sit on Jef­fer­son Is­land, for­merly known as the “play­ground of pres­i­dents,” where Pres­i­dents Franklin D. Roo­sevelt and Harry S. Tru­man spent hol­i­days.

Since pur­chas­ing Jef­fer­son Is­land, they’ve in­vested about $1 mil­lion in it, Zelinske said, in­clud­ing in­stall-



ing a well for fresh wa­ter, a sep­tic sys­tem and a gen­er­a­tor for elec­tric­ity. He added that at some point, he’d like to move permanently to the is­land, which has all of the ne­ces­si­ties as well as the tran­quil­ity that drove him to buy it in the first place.

Turn­ing back to the hori­zon in front of him, he raises his hands, point­ing to part of what is now a scenic vista, and breaks the si­lence: “At least three quar­ters of my view of that open bay is go­ing to be gone.”

“Hav­ing an is­land is sup­posed to be what we bought it for: hav­ing peace and seren­ity,” Zelinske said, “and they’re de­stroy­ing that.”

In 1847, Poplar Is­land spanned 1,140 acres, ac­cord­ing to the Mary­land Port Ad­min­is­tra­tion. But by 1993, just be­fore the Zelinskes bought Lowes Wharf Ma­rina, years of ris­ing sea lev­els and land ero­sion shrunk Poplar to just five acres.

Phases 1 and 2 of the Poplar Is­land con­struc­tion pro­ject aimed to have fed­eral and state groups use clean dredg­ing ma­te­ri­als from Bal­ti­more Har­bor trib­u­taries to plant some 40 mil­lion cu­bic yards on the is­land and grow the land back to its orig­i­nal 1,140-acre size. The Mary­land Board of Pub­lic Works ap­proved the pro­ject in 1996.

The first two phases were com­pleted by 2002, just af­ter the Zelinskes pur­chased Jef­fer­son Is­land. In 2005, there was some talk of a third phase, he said, but “ev­ery­thing went to a stand­still.”

Then, one day, Zelinske read in a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle that there would be a pub­lic hear­ing at the county li­brary about a Phase 3, which he said was not a part of the orig­i­nal pro­ject out­line and took him by sur­prise.

This phase, which called for an ad­di­tional 575 acres of dredged ma­te­ri­als from Bal­ti­more Har­bor be­ing added to Poplar Is­land, was au­tho­rized in 2014. And on Feb. 24, the Board of Pub­lic Works voted 3-0 to ap­prove a 30-year state tidal wet­lands li­cense to al­low con­struc­tion and op­er­a­tion to con­tinue.

“They’re chang­ing the game,” he said. “This is­land has cre­ated some is­sues. If any­one is af­fected by this, it’s me.”

One of these is­sues comes from the 5.6 mil­lion cu­bic yards of dredged ma­te­rial that make up Phase 3, as well as the 30-foot wall that the state plans to con­struct in front of Jef­fer­son Is­land, which Zelinske said will block his 4-mile view of the East­ern Bay and af­fect tourism by block­ing the view from his ma­rina. The wall will also block his view from his own is­land, Zelinske said.

“Three-fourths of the view will be gone,” Zelinske said. “Tourism comes from word of mouth. (The view) is part of the at­trac­tion to draw peo­ple in ... this (pro­ject) is very, very detri­men­tal to the value of Jef­fer­son Is­land.”

Zelinske said the con­struc­tion has af­fected both Jef­fer­son Is­land and the ma­rina. An in­crease in sed­i­ment to the waters around the ma­rina has kept boats from get­ting into the fuel dock, mak­ing it harder for him to sell fuel and at­tract vis­i­tors, he said.

The con­struc­tion has also changed the hy­dro­dy­nam­ics of the wa­ter, he said, speed­ing up ero­sion of his 12-acre is­land, which has now been cut in two.

He added that he planned to hunt on the is­land but said he has been con­cerned about eat­ing the ducks, fear­ing they could be con­tam­i­nated due to the nearby har­bor spoils.

“Ev­ery drop of dredg­ing ma­te­rial that we dis­charge has to meet state stan­dards, and wa­ter that is dis­charged is some­times tested mul­ti­ple times a day,” said Justin Cal­la­han, the pro­ject’s man­ager for the Army Corps of En­gi­neers. “There’s rou­tine daily mon­i­tor­ing, and if some­thing doesn’t meet the state stan­dards, we stop.”

In 2009, the Mary­land Sea Grant – a part of the University Sys­tem of Mary­land that works to re­store the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay – pub­lished a study of the sed­i­ment from Bal­ti­more Har­bor and con­cluded that “some sed­i­ments in the har­bor are con­tam­i­nated to the point that con­sid­er­a­tion should be given to leav­ing them in place.”

The Port of Bal­ti­more must per­form sed­i­ment test­ing of these ma­te­ri­als ev­ery three years to make sure they aren’t pol­luted. While Zelinske said the spoils have failed pol­lu­tant tests in the past, Cal­la­han said they have not seen any neg­a­tive im­pacts to Poplar Is­land’s sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Cal­la­han added that all dredged har­bor ma­te­rial has been known to be clean.

Al­though Zelinske said the pro­ject has neg­a­tively im­pacted his prop­erty, oth­ers say it has brought ben­e­fits to other parts of the state.

Cal­la­han, who has been work­ing with the is­land since the 1990s, said there has been over­whelm­ing sup­port from state and fed­eral re­source agen­cies. This in­cludes the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s Mary­land sci­en­tist Doug My­ers said.

“Think about the Port of Bal­ti­more and the role this has in re­gional com­merce,” Cal­la­han said. “It cre­ates jobs and helps lo­cal busi­nesses ... peo­ple can bad­mouth the pro­ject, but those peo­ple are los­ing a sense of the big­ger pic­ture.”

Ac­cord­ing to Mary­land Port Ad­min­is­tra­tion Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor James J. White, jobs linked to the port ex­ceed 127,000 in Mary­land, pro­duc­ing al­most $3 bil­lion in salaries and wages and gen­er­at­ing $310 mil­lion in state and lo­cal taxes.

“This pro­ject is seen as a unique and eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal suc­cess ... it en­ables Bal­ti­more Har­bor to con­tinue as a suc­cess­ful port (and) pro­vides eco­log­i­cal habi­tat,” Mary­land Wet­lands Ad­min­is­tra­tor Bill Mor­gante said at the Feb. 24 Board of Pub­lic Works meet­ing. “But con­cerns re­main about the im­pact of the ex­pan­sion pro­ject, par­tic­u­larly the per­ma­nent loss of view on nearby prop­erty own­ers.”

Zelinske raised con­cerns about the ex­pan­sion with the Mary­land Depart­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment and the Board of Pub­lic Works be­fore at­tend­ing that same board meet­ing.

“Per­son­ally, I’d like to not see it hap­pen, but it’s like … David against Go­liath, you know?” he said. “Ev­ery­one’s pretty much like, ‘Sorry for your in­con­ve­nience.’”

Re­gard­less of these op­pos­ing views, Zelinske said there’s a le­gal dis­pute at hand – whether it’s le­gal to cre­ate more acreage on the land than there was orig­i­nally – that must get sorted out be­fore the pro­ject can move for­ward.

Tim Hen­der­son, who prac­tices en­vi­ron­men­tal law and rep­re­sents Jef­fer­son Is­land and its own­ers, Zelinske and Kevin McMa­hon, said cre­at­ing this ad­di­tional 575 acres of land goes be­yond what is al­lowed un­der Mary­land law.

“In 2001, there was no talk of this third phase, so (the Zelinskes) had no idea that it was in the works,” Hen­der­son said. “It’s a form of is­land cre­ation, rather than is­land restora­tion.”

Cal­la­han said just be­cause there’s an 1847 map out­lin­ing the is­land’s pre­vi­ous size, it doesn’t mean that’s what it looked like be­fore, show­ing no de­fin­i­tive proof of is­land cre­ation. He added that nu­mer­ous sites were con­sid­ered and a fea­si­bil­ity study was con­ducted to make sure Poplar Is­land was the right choice for the pro­ject.

Hen­der­son said they might appeal the per­mit, and Zelinske added that he will take all pos­si­ble av­enues to pur­sue this is­sue and “fight it as long as he can.”

While he had planned to move out to Jef­fer­son Is­land and live there full time, Zelinske said, the pro­ject has forced him to re­con­sider. He added that if he had known about Phase 3, he prob­a­bly wouldn’t have bought Jef­fer­son Is­land at all.

“They pretty much said the pro­ject out­weighs the in­con­ve­nience or the set­backs for the other peo­ple – my­self,” he said. “Maybe we’re go­ing to have a Phase 4, a Phase 5 ... when is it go­ing to stop?”

“I’m go­ing to keep on go­ing – I don’t re­ally have a choice,” Zelinske said. “We put our blood, sweat and tears into this prop­erty. Af­ter two decades, you get a lit­tle at­tached to it.”


A bull­dozer sits near the edge of Poplar Is­land.

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