The U.S. Naval Academy Plans a Golf Course on a Nature Preserve. One Maryland Congressman Says Not So Fast
A Maryland congressman has voiced strong opposition to the U.S. Navy’s plan to develop a golf course on a protected wildlife and natural resources sanctuary in Annapolis, known as the Greenbury Point Conservation Area, a 150-acre wetlands and forest bordering the mouth of the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay.
“I have deep reservations about any proposal to convert this forested land to a golf course and limit public access to such an important natural recreation area,” said U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes, a Democrat who represents Maryland’s Third Congressional District.
Sarbanes called Greenbury Point is “a critical conservation area.” It buffers the Chesapeake Bay from nutrient pollution while providing irreplaceable habitats for wildlife and access to the Bay for the community. “I will continue to monitor this situation closely,” Sarbanes added, “and take every opportunity to communicate to the Navy my own concerns and those of my constituents and area environmental groups.”
The Navy has publicly acknowledged that Naval Support Activity Annapolis (NSAA), which manages the land, is currently reviewing the proposal, adding: “Once it goes through the Navy’s chain of command, it will go to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Energy, Installations and Environment) for review.”
The proposal has spurred widespread concerns among environmental and activist circles in Annapolis, who argue that the move negates Navy’s commitments to conservation efforts in the Chesapeake Bay and contradicts the Biden administration’s executive order on climate that sets a goal to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030.
The new golf course will be adjacent to an existing 18-hole course, which went through a $6 million renovation between 2020 and 2021, and caters to the Naval Academy golf teams, the Brigade of Midshipmen, active and retired military and civilian members. Since 2018, the renovations led to removal of 191 trees, an analysis by nonprofit group Chesapeake Conservancy found.
Home to wetlands and wetland forest, the peninsula features a picturesque blend of wilderness, nature trails and scenic water views, and is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species. It lies within the critical area designated by the state of Maryland as crucial to the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The site has also been used for mitigation to offset environmental costs the Naval Academy has incurred over the years.
A Navy brochure describes the site as a “mission-supportive natural resources conservation area,” which “provides a protective overshot range and an open land area periodically used for midshipmen training.” It mentions that a federal law known as the Sikes Act requires that the site is “managed to restore and enhance its natural resources.” Public access to the land is restricted whenever the shooting range is in use for midshipmen training.
It is one of the four areas in the vicinity prone to coastal flooding, sea level rise and storm water impact under the USNA Military Installation Resilience Plan for Annapolis.
The U.S. has a goal of reaching net-zero emissions no later than 2050 and the country will need to increase the ability of lands and forests to sequester carbon to reach that goal, said Haley Leslie-Bole, of the World Resources Institute. It also needs to protect the ecosystems that already store carbon, she added, which means stopping the conversion of forest land to other land uses. “Removing a forest to build a golf course would be moving us further away from reaching our climate goals,” Leslie-Bole said.
Golf courses are known to contribute significant nutrients and chemicals to nearby water bodies, leaching nitrogen and phosphorus into the water. Having a golf course next to the Chesapeake Bay will jeopardize efforts to achieve the 2025 goals set for the Bay, advocates said, especially in view of the significant increase in nutrient pollution in the bay last year. The Chesapeake Bay Program is already struggling to meet its wetlands conservation goals as part of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay agreement, environmental advocates said.
A 2017 study found that 1,500 18-hole equivalent golf courses closed across the U.S. between 2006 and 2016, with 200 of these facilities shuttered nationwide in 2016 alone. “Golf course facilities are predicted to continue to close for several more years,” the research said, and added that turning golf courses into parks or open spaces would be “a sensible alternative” because parks support recreation, ecosystem enhancement, stormwater detention and urban wildlife habitat.
Community Takes on Big Navy
Jennifer Crews-Carey, 56, has lived, and served, in Annapolis all her life. It’s the city where she was raised, and she patrolled its streets and neighborhoods as a police officer for 24 years before retiring in 2014.
Her tattooed arms express her feelings for the state and its capital city. There’s a purple thistle, which is the flower on the city flag, and a monarch butterfly, “because it has Maryland’s color,” she said, describing the art etched on her skin.
“There’s the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and Thomas Point Lighthouse,” she went on. “Rock fish because that’s our state fish. The blue crab because we’re known for blue crabs. And the blue herring because it’s one of the birds that navigates through the Chesapeake Bay. So, it’s all kind of tied to Maryland.”
Now working full time for the city’s 911 service, Crews-Carey said she finds herself in the trenches, pushing back against the Navy—a stealthy and influential player, she said, that is used to doing business on its own terms. “It’s going to be a good fight,” she said.
The rumors started circulating over a year ago that the Navy was scoping out possible locations for a new golf course, Crews-Carey said. “But we had not seen any plans and were not sure exactly what was going on.” In May, her friend Sue Steinbrook, another resident-turned-activist, found out from a fellow walker she met on the trail that it was Greenbury Point that the Navy had identified for the new course.
That same day, Crews-Carey got on her laptop and established an online group called “Save Greenbury Point” to share information and organize online and in-person campaigns to protect the wildlife and nature sanctuary. The group has swelled to almost 2,000 members.
“We learned in May that a public meeting was scheduled to discuss the project in Providence,” said Crews-Carey, referring to a small community close to the Greenbury Point. “We shared the news on our online page and our members were ready to show up. But then the meeting was abruptly canceled. And then the rescheduled meeting also got canceled,” she added.
She and her friend, Steinbrook, have since teamed up to get the word out on the street, talking to people around Annapolis, and handing out hand-painted rocks etched with the words “Save Greenbury Point.” Others made phone calls, created online petitions and filed information requests asking the Navy to provide information about the proposed golf course.
On June 30, the Navy released a copy of an official correspondence, which laid out the plan in broad details.
“We have started to explore options to construct a new golf course on the land known as Greenbury Point at the Naval Support Activity Annapolis, ” wrote Chet Gladchuk, president of the Naval Academy Golf Association (NAGA) to the Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro on Feb. 15.
The course will be designed in the “most environmentally sensitive way possible,” Gladchuk wrote, adding that the plan included a walking trail for the community, a berm for protection from “hazardous material on site,” and mitigation of the loss of trees and conservation area.
Gladchuk asked Del Toro to support the project by authorizing a “sole source negotiated lease agreement with NAGA ” to develop and use the Greenbury Point land for the new golf course.
The Navy said “a sole-source lease is a kind of lease agreement that the Navy can issue without a competitive bidding process and can only be authorized by the Secretary of the Navy.”
“This will permit us to start the lease negotiations and to start the design process with a clear way forward and a more compressed timeline,” the letter said. Gladchuk concluded the letter by saying he intended to visit the Navy secretary and share the plans in person.
In a May 6 letter, James B. Balocki, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, advised Gladchuk to route the lease request through Navy channels. “Approval requests for leasing actions must come from a Department of the Navy component,” he wrote.
The Navy has since refused to share any further details of the project, saying: “We are unable to share the NAGA proposal. Any documents regarding the proposal are considered internal and deliberative and unavailable for release.”
A coalition of 20 environmental organizations sent a joint letter to Secretary Del Toro, saying that NAGA and Naval Support Activity Annapolis keep refusing their requests for information, urging him to reject the proposal and transfer the property to the National Park Service or the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service instead.
The advocates also hope Meredith Berger, the assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, known for her pro-environment stance, would stop the project from moving forward. The proposal would proceed if Berger finds that it would support and enhance the mission of NSA Annapolis.
A Convoluted Arrangement
The leading figure behind the proposed golf course is Gladchuk, Naval Academy’s director of athletics, who is also president of the Naval Academy Athletic Association (NAAA) and Naval Academy Golf Association.
NAAA, a non-federal entity, runs the Naval Academy’s sports programs. It hires coaches, negotiates media contracts, manages the stadium, arranges games and oversees the Navy’s athletic budget of over $40 million, a 2016 report said.
NAGA, another non-governmental entity, manages the existing 18-hole members-only naval academy golf course and would construct the new golf course on Greenbury point.
“NAGA would be responsible for paying the land lease and the price of any improvements or changes made to the property,” said the Navy, adding that NAGA will decide who uses the course.
Both private organizations—NAGA and NAAA—compensate Gladchuk for his services as president. According to publicly available tax returns filed by NAGA between 2015 and 2018, Gladchuk made almost $7 million in salary and bonuses from NAGA alone.
NAAA’s tax filings for the same time period, or the previous years, were not available. Gladchuk has run it as president for over two decades. A 2018 editorial in the Capital Gazette praised Gladchuk’s overall performance but chided NAAA, which benefits from federal funding as well as private contributions, for a lack of transparency and operating behind a veil of secrecy, and urged it to disclose its financial statements.
As Athletics Director, Gladchuk does not draw a salary from the Naval Academy. He works “in a voluntary services capacity,” said Alana Garas, public affairs officer to the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.
“Mr. Gladchuk is not a federal employee and is not compensated by the Naval Academy, the Department of Defense or the federal government,” Garas said, adding that his salary is provided by the Naval Academy Athletic Association.
In a recent letter, three environmental groups—the Severn River Association, Chesapeake Conservancy and Chesapeake Bay Foundation—expressed concern about the new golf course to Marylands’ two U.S. senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats. “The prospect of a government agency leasing public land for exclusive use by a private golf association and its members raises serious concerns about fair market competition and public benefits,” the groups said. It would be inappropriate for the federal government to effectively subsidize a private golf association by leasing public land for a private golf course, they wrote.
The advocates asked if the arrangement allows the Navy to skirt regular governmental channels on projects that would otherwise involve regulatory scrutiny and oversight.
Meanwhile, as public information requests filed by advocates have piled up in recent weeks, the Navy has created an FAQ page to address public concerns.
In response to the queries about the specifics of the project, the FAQs repeat what the Navy has maintained throughout the controversy: “There is no project at this time. All we have is a concept proposal.” In response to questions about the environmental impacts of the proposed golf course, the Navy said, “we cannot say what the impacts will be at this point” because creating a new golf course is “just a proposal.”
“The clandestine process used to advance this proposal and the lack of public engagement makes a mockery of our democratic system,” said Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit. “If the Navy approves this proposal, it will detract from their recent strong conservation record and undermine their credibility as a leading partner in the Chesapeake Bay Program,” he added.
An Archeological and Wildlife Treasure-Trove with a Sprinkle of Contamination
While Crews-Carey’s keystrokes kept the online campaigning brimming with energy, Steinbrook said she faced a dilemma: The fate of her passion project, a pictorial book on Annapolis’ historic homes, rests on what happens to Greenbury Point in days ahead.
“I wanted to include a chapter on Greenbury Point because of its rich history,” she said. A pharmaceuticals salesperson for 18 years, Steinbrook considers Greenbury Point an archeological treasure trove that should be a historical landmark.
In the mid-1600s, Puritan exiles from Virginia founded the town of Providence at Greenbury Point. The Susquehannock Indians inhabited the area at the time of European settlement in 1649, according to a Navy history.
“Archeological evidence indicates indigenous peoples have occupied the coastal region of Maryland from the Paleo-Indian/Early Archaic period through the Woodland period,” the Naval Support Activity Annapolis’ Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMP) said. It is the policy document that governs the land management actions of military offices such as the NSAA, which manages Greenbury Point.
The NSAA’s integrated management plan identifies the peninsula as a “Conservation Area” not suitable for development. It requires that any new development “must be cognizant of potential natural and cultural resources constraints such as wetlands, floodplains, and Chesapeake Bay Critical Area criteria.”
Nature sanctuaries on military lands are protected under the Sikes Act, passed in 1960 and amended in 1977 to require the Pentagon to prepare and implement INRMPs. Under the Sikes Act, any lease or a sale agreement of military land should comply with Integrated Natural Resources Management Plans for that area.
Annually reviewed by the Defense Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and any relevant state agency, all military installations are required under the Sikes Act to keep their INRMPs current.
The NSAA has not issued its latest integrated management plan. It says online that the INRMP ”is currently being updated.” On its FAQ page, the Navy said the proposal for a golf course will not be mentioned in the current INRMP update because it is “just a proposal.”
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If the proposal receives approval, then an environmental assessment would be conducted to update the INRMP with the change of use of Greenbury Point, the Navy said. “A golf course project would require an [environmental impact statement] which would also mandate a public comment period,” the Navy said, adding that it has the authority to change the designation of land to meet operational needs and requirements.
The peninsula is also protected by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Navy said changes to its intended use would require an environmental assessment. A golf course on the peninsula would also trigger several federal and state laws, including the Coastal Zone Management Act, Clean Water Act and a host of permitting requirements.
Steinbrook said there’s a pattern to the Navy’s land acquisitions practices. “The Navy has a history of trying to slowly encroach on Annapolis and make money from our little Historic District,” she said.
Formerly a military site, the area hosted 19 Eiffel Tower-styled radio towers until 1999, used for submarine communication. Only three of the towers remain standing today on Greenbury Point, providing navigation support and lending the area its signature look.
Lead paint on the towers led to contamination, and the Navy conducted a clean-up operation to excavate and remove tainted soil. “Excavation of contaminated soil to meet removal action goals was completed in the 1st quarter of 2003,” the Maryland Department of the Environment said in an analysis.
The MDE remains concerned, however, over the presence of hazardous materials on and around the peninsula—concerns echoed by NAGA’s golf course proposal, which mentions constructing a berm to shield against hazardous materials on site.
Over the years, nature has returned to the peninsula. “The area is home to over 480 different plant and animal species,” said Jessy Oberright, leader of the Greenbury Point Biodiversity Project. She said the site is an e-bird hotspot where 172 species, including the globally threatened horned grebe, have been observed.
“The area is an important nesting area for Osprey and Bald Eagles,” the Department of the Environment analysis said. “The habitat afforded from the undisturbed open area on Greenbury Point provides critical habitat for a variety of flora and fauna.” The analysis noted that a wildlife education center monitors the migration patterns of the Monarch Butterfly through a tag and release program.
“A few weeks ago, we managed to get three video recordings with the northern bobwhite quail calling, last documented in 2012. We thought that they had been lost from that habitat,” Oberright said. Removing that biodiversity means fragmenting that land into just small chunks of habitat, she said, and “will be devastating.”