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Fighting for, and Over, the Green

One environmental group has sued another over an island in the Potomac River, claiming that the defendant owes it somewhere between $125,000 and $3.1 million for services rendered in preserving the land as a forest. The plaintiff, Environmental Banc & Exchange (EBX) of Owings Mills, claims it loaned money and otherwise helped Harrison Island Conservation Society (HICS), of Westminster, to buy a piece of Harrison Island in Montgomery County, with the expectation it would be paid for its services.“This lawsuit specifically involves placing a portion of the Land into the Conservation Reservation Enhancement Program (the “CREP”), as well as restoration of a portion of forestry on the Land by the establishment of a forest mitigation bank and restoration of a portion of wetlands on the Land by the establishment of a wetlands mitigation bank,” according to a suit filed earlier this month in Baltimore County Circuit Court.EBX helped HICS acquire the land, place it into the CREP, and establish the forest mitigation bank and wetland mitigation bank, the suit alleges. “All services rendered by EBX to HICS were rendered under such circumstances that HICS knew that EBX expected to be paid.”EBX claims unjust enrichment damages of $125,000 and total damages of $3.1 million.Taking titleHarrison Island actually consists of three islands that are about 3, 7 and 407 acres in size, according to Jeff Opel of the Department of Natural Resources.“Last Friday, [HICS] took title to Harrison Island from its owner and put 198 acres into the CREP escrow program,” Opel said.HICS also put a perpetual environmental easement on the property that prohibits development or farming on the southernmost 75 acres of the large island and a 300-feet wide perimeter around it.This will guarantee that the island remains a forest “for as long as people record their property this way,” according to Opel.The State of Maryland paid $289,764 for the perpetual easement but the cost of the 15-year environmental CREP contract “is proprietary information” and not available, Opel said.Modeled after the soil bank program of the 1960s, CREP is a federal-state program that pays owners of agriculture land along waterways to take the land out of cultivation for up to 15 years, Josh Sandt of the Department of Natural Resources explained.“You not only clear up the water by catching the sediments, but you in addition have a wildlife travel corridor that wildlife can move through” from one wooded area to another, Sandt said.In Montgomery County, owners who put land into the CREP program receive $2,705 per acre, Sandt said.The complaint does not say that HICS purchased the property and it identifies DeWalt J. Willard as owning the part of Harrison Island in 1991. Willard could not be reached for comment and HICS did not return a reporter’s call for comment.EBX officials failed to return a reporter’s calls but attorney Robert B. Hopkins, after consulting with his clients, declined to discuss the case except to say that EBX hopes to resolve the matter quickly.