Off The Beaten Path

Franklin Point’s beauty plain as the eye can see


In Walter Neitzey’s four decades as a flight instructor and operator of Deep Creek Airport on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay 10 miles south of Annapolis, he probably never once looked down from his cockpit at the bucolic airfield below and thought it might some day be part of a nice state park.

That is to be expected; the future is hard to see, even from the air.

The recent past, on the other hand, is sometimes easy to see from the air, or in Google Maps. If you zoom in on what is now the southwest edge of Franklin Point State Park, the telltale geometry of Neitzey’s runway is easy to spot: a string-straight 2,000-foot grassy strip reaching southeast to the Bay’s edge, with a shorter crosswind runway angling through it.

In the mid-1990s, seven or eight years after Neitzey closed the airport, these hundreds of acres of mostly wooded land between the Bayside communities of Churchton and Shadyside, MD, appeared to be headed for a very different future. A developer had purchased the land and was planning to build around 300 homes there. But a citizen’s group called SACReD — South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development — wasn’t having it. The group not only stopped the development, but also fought off a $50 million defamation lawsuit filed by the developer, Washington real estate magnate Dominic Antonelli.

“It was a really, really tough citizen effort … but it was worth it,” said Mike Shay of Shady Side, one of SACReD’s founders. “Through public support, public initiative and the public’s help with the maintenance, we have a park that was saved by the citizens and is now owned and operated by the citizens.”

And that was only stage one of the 20-year incubation process that produced Franklin Point State Park. After the housing development was stymied, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources purchased the property for $5.8 million and was prepared to turn over its management to Anne Arundel County, pending approval of the county’s plan for the acreage.

But the county plan, released in 2004, called for lighted ballfields, parking lots and other infrastructure — and was therefore every bit as unpopular with local citizens as the housing development had been. And when the state’s Critical Area Commission ruled in 2005 that the parking lots and ballfields could not be situated in the Critical Area near shorelines, which makes up more than half of the park’s 477 acres, the county pulled out.

Begin stage three — a nearly decade-long dormant period. The Maryland Park Service held on to the property but had neither the staff nor budget to do anything but lock it up behind a gate. Nor did it have a local organization to support the park with volunteer projects, cleanups, trail maintenance and such. The solution led to stage four, in late 2014, with the recruitment of the West/Rhode Riverkeeper Jeff Holland and his sizable corps of volunteers.

“Mike [Shay] came to me and said, ‘Jeff, let’s open this park!’” Holland recalled.

Water access advocates in the county were also eager to get it up and running because of the site’s potential for a kayak launch.

“So I went to Steve McCoy, the head ranger at Sandy Point State Park, who also oversees Franklin Point, and got things going. Then it was off to the races,” Holland said.

The park opened to the public just nine or 10 months later, in August 2015 — though at the time there were no trails or kayak launches, just 477 acres of forests and wetlands, former farmland, grassland and, on the edge of the Bay at the park’s southern tip, an impressive expanse of tidal salt marsh.

Over the next year and a half, dozens of West/Rhode Riverkeeper volunteers, local citizens, Park Service workers and Boy Scout troops worked at cleaning up the park, demolishing an abandoned house, building a mile-long interpretive trail and creating a kayak launch on Deep Creek, which runs along the park’s southwest edge.And if Jeff Holland, Mike Shay and company have anything to say about it, there won’t be much more “improvement” beyond that. “The plan is to add a few more trails,” Holland said, “but beyond that we’re going to be very hands-off. We want to just let it be what it is — a beautiful, natural place.”

That’s a song Shay has been singing for 20 years. He calls this tract of land “the best of the best and the last of the last.”

“This site really is one of the largest contiguous wooded wildlands on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, and we want it to stay that way,” Shay said. “It’s huge and wonderfully diverse, with ponds and fields and marshes and [forests]. It’s an incredible place.”

An environmental analysis conducted by Anne Arundel County in 2003 clearly supports that assessment. Of the 21 distinct habitats in the park, 15 were rated either good or exceptional. In the latter category were the two largest tracks of mixed wetland and upland forest in the park’s interior. Both are large enough to have truly insular interiors of their own, which are attractive to a number of species that biologists call FIDS — forest interior dwelling species.

The other patch of “exceptional” forest is a strip of mature shoreline forest between the old airport runway and Deep Creek. It is only a fraction of the size of the two interior forests, but being adjacent to a large, high-quality salt marsh makes it an ideal roosting and “loafing” habitat for several species of wading birds.

The grassland at the southern end of the runway and the tidal marsh beyond it are both considered exceptional as well. The former is high-value habitat for grassland breeding birds. The latter, the low salt marsh at the Bay’s edge, is the rock star of the bunch — as habitat for two of the state’s endangered species. One is the black rail, a small, elusive marsh-dwelling bird that is disappearing as fast as the marshes it needs to survive. The other is a marsh plant called grass-like beakrush.

As wild and natural as the park is, visitors aren’t entirely left to fend for themselves. The interpretive trail is well-marked and easy enough to follow, starting at the edge of Deep Creek across the road from the park’s small parking lot. Then it heads southeast along the creek, zig-zags northeast, southeast and northeast again until it comes to the edge of the old main runway.

From there it follows the southwest side of the runway for about 1,000 feet before turning right to follow the much narrower former crosswind runway another 1,000 feet to the edge of the marsh. This last bit is by far the most charming part of the trail — narrow as a country lane, completely embowered by lanky adolescent sweetgums and Virginia pines — and gentle underfoot with soft shade-loving grass.

Best of all, you get to do that part twice because here, at the edge of the Bay, the trail doubles back and returns to the main runway, crossing to the opposite side for the return trip. Then it turns left across the grassy strip and ultimately brings you back to where you started.

Along the way you will no doubt notice the trail’s dozen tall 4-by-4 guideposts, each with a QR code attached to its angled top. These are what make the trail “interpretive.” If you have a QR reader on your smart phone, you can learn about vernal pools, spring peepers, osprey, salt marshes, Franklin Point geology and even a bit about the first humans to inhabit Maryland. At guidepost 12 you’ll read about the feisty folks of SACReD, who stared down a millionaire developer and made Franklin Point State Park possible.

And at guidepost 9 — ah, good old guidepost 9 — you learn about Walter N. Neitzkey, the airport operator and flight instructor who, from the cockpit of his single-engine plane, no doubt enjoyed the view but probably never guessed its future.

Unlock the beauty of Franklin Point

Franklin Point State Park is open from sunrise to sunset daily, year-round. The park entrance is at the end of Dent Road, off state Route 468 (Muddy Creek Road) about a mile south of Shady Side, MD.

The entrance gate is locked at all times; to gain entrance, go to the park’s website and fill out the gate combination request form. After you enter your name, email address and phone number, the webpage immediately returns the current combination for the gate lock.

The Park Service asks that you lock the gate behind you. Pets are allowed if kept on a leash. Hunting is prohibited, as are campfires, camping and after-hours activities.

T.F. Sayles

Bay Journal News Service managing editor Tim Sayles served as editor of Chesapeake Bay Magazine for 18 years and before that as editor of Mid-Atlantic Country magazine from 1989 to 1996. His work has covered everything from oyster aquaculture and crab harvests to dead zones and the lives of waterman.

June 26, 2017

Main image: Franklin Point State Park was once a small, 20th-century airfield that was slated for development but preserved through citizen efforts. (Jeff Holland)
Older Newer