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A historic site believed to be the location of a 17th-century house built by the third Lord Baltimore appears safe from future development given an agreement from The St. Charles Cos. to preserve the property, Charles County’s purchase of an adjacent Piscataway Indian settlement and efforts to acquire state funding for the drafting of a regional American Indian “heritage trail.”

The site and concerns over its preservation have sparked a public controversy over when county planning staff first became aware of it while reviewing the preliminary site plan for the nearly 700-acre Piney Reach Business Park, located near the county landfill in Waldorf.

But The St. Charles Cos., the park’s developer, has agreed to carve out the historic site from its project, which was first proposed in 2007, and plans to submit a revised preliminary plan in the near future, spokesman Craig Renner said.

“We agreed to do that all along,” he said. “That was never something that was ever going to be bulldozed.”

The site was discovered in 2009, when an archaeological student at St. Mary’s College of Maryland found it on a historic plat in the state archives.

The St. Charles Cos. permitted Julia King, an anthropology professor at the college, and her students to survey the site, where they found the remains of what they believe to be His Lordship’s Favor, “the summer house Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore, built for his son in [1672],” King wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to the Charles County Planning Commission.

The Charles County commissioners and planning staff also were briefed on the discovery, as King and her students needed to cross county land to access the site.

During the survey, King and her students found artifacts that led to the discovery in 2011 of the nearby Zekiah Fort, a 17th-century Piscataway settlement.

The Charles County commissioners purchased the land on which Zekiah Fort rests in December. No announcement was made, but commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) and county spokeswoman Crystal Hunt confirmed the purchase Thursday, though they did not specify from whom the property was bought or for how much.

It is mentioned in a February letter from state Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D) to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) that asks for funding for a master plan for the fort.

“Just recently, the Charles County Commissioners acquired the Zekiah Fort property near Waldorf and are very interested in pursuing the development of a master plan for the development and use of the property and the development of a regional ‘heritage trail’ originating at the property,” Middleton wrote.

The letter requests $250,000 as a supplemental budget appropriation or through the restoration of a grant fund maintained by the Maryland Historical Trust.

The controversy began after the planning commission’s Jan. 28 meeting, during which a vote on the business park’s preliminary plan was put off when member Joseph Tieger asked for clarification on what effect it might have on the landfill.

The next morning, local businessman Michael Sullivan, who helped fund the search for Zekiah Fort, emailed Director of Planning and Growth Management Peter Aluotto to ask why county staff had not mentioned the sites for His Lordship’s Favor or Zekiah Fort in their report on the preliminary plan.

Aluotto responded that county staff would raise the issue at the next planning commission meeting and copied several staff members, including Planning Director Stephen Ball, in a subsequent email.

After receiving King’s letter, the commission at its Feb. 25 meeting voted 3-2 to again defer action on the site plan so that it could hear from her and members of the Piscataway Conoy American Indian tribe at its next meeting March 11. Ball told the commission Feb. 25 that he and staff had been unaware of the site prior to seeing King’s letter.

Aware that Ball had been copied on Aluotto’s email a month earlier and that the county had been aware of the site since it was discovered in 2009, Sullivan contacted Todd Pounds, an attorney at the law firm Alexander & Cleaver, who wrote a letter to the planning commission March 6 stating that state law required further review of the archaeological site.

The letter also states that Ball knew about the site earlier than he claimed.

In a March 11 memo objecting to Pounds’ letter, Ball stated that he first learned of the site from Feb. 21 emails between Sullivan and Aluotto.

That same day, at the planning commission meeting, members Joseph Richard and Louis Grasso questioned Ball regarding his memo and expressed skepticism over how county staff could overlook a site that had been discovered five years ago.

PGM staffer Cathy Thompson stated earlier in the meeting that a historical review had been completed for the project in 2007, before the site had been discovered, and that another review was not required and thus not conducted when the preliminary site plan had been submitted for approval.

“There was no attempt to hide anything from you guys,” Ball said at the March meeting. “Before Mr. Sullivan sent his emails, I had no knowledge of this [historical] study that’s been sitting on our shelves since 2009.”

Ball later walked out of the meeting, when Richard suggested the commission discuss why the archeological site was not originally part of the staff’s report on the project.

Kelly (D) has since called for the ouster of both Richard and Grasso from the planning commission, and the issue has been raised by citizens at several public meetings.

Richard, Grasso and fellow planning board members Robert Mitchell and Joan Jones sent the commissioners a letter March 17 asking them to “review the actions of Mr. Steve Ball … as it pertains to the preliminary plan for the St. Charles Piney Reach Industrial Park.”

Ball declined comment when reached by phone Thursday.

Kelly acknowledged receipt of the letter Thursday, and said that County Administrator Mark Belton would “look into the matter.”

“I don’t see any ill intent,” on Ball’s part, Kelly said. “I find these kind of accusations in the public realm against a very dedicated employee to be just inappropriate, and I’m very disturbed by it. The planning commissioners that have engaged in this, I find it distasteful.”

jnewman@somdnews.com