Assateague Island
Administrative History
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Chapter II:

As President Johnson's signature on the Assateague bill signaled the end of the legislative effort to authorize the national seashore on paper, it marked the beginning of the administrative effort to bring this new unit of the National Park System into reality. Land, people, planning, facilities, programs—these were among the major ingredients needed to effect the transformation. Although much of necessity occurred simultaneously, ease of comprehension requires separate examination of the several activity areas. Because the seashore was and is, at bottom, a venture in land management by a land managing bureau, it seems most appropriate to begin with the first priority of the Park Service at Assateague: land acquisition.

Acquisition in Maryland

When Bertrum C. Roberts arrived from the superintendency of Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, Florida, to assume the top job at Assateague Island National Seashore on December 5, 1965, he faced a formidable challenge in establishing a land base for the new park. Such publicly owned land as the seashore then contained was, with a few minor exceptions, in the hands of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife and the Maryland Department of Forests and Parks. These lands totaled some 10,000 acres. It was Roberts' task to acquire the balance of about 9,000 acres on Assateague from some 3,500 owners, many of them hostile to the idea. Fortunately he was joined by a Park Service realty officer experienced in such matters, Allen C. Staggers. For their initial base of operations Roberts and Staggers rented an office seven miles inland at 8 Main Street, Berlin, Maryland. [1]

The pair shared four immediate goals: to acquire the authorized administrative headquarters site on the mainland; to provide a temporary visitor contact station on the site; to assemble key park staff; and to establish and staff a land acquisition office in Snow Hill, site of the Worcester County Courthouse where the county's land records were filed. [2]

Progress was made on the first goal early the following month when Ross F. Sweeny and James W. Stewart of the Service's Eastern Office of Design and Construction met with Roberts, Staggers, and Regional Park Planner Richard Wittpenn of the NPS Northeast (Philadelphia) Regional Office (to which Roberts reported) to locate a suitable 10—acre tract. They were guided by several criteria: position on the right side of the highway approaching the Sandy Point bridge; distance from the bridge sufficient to permit vehicles to exit and gain cruising speed before reaching the bridge, without being so far away that intervening commercial development might intrude; property not adjacent to any of the three established accesses to the limited access highway along the stretch approaching the bridge, so that a special access might be obtained from the state that would not have to be shared with neighboring owners; land of sufficient elevation to escape flooding; property in single ownership for ease of acquisition. [3] The team found a tract owned by Elizabeth P. Woodcock of Salisbury, Maryland, that met these criteria. It was purchased in July 1966, fenced, and occupied the following year.

The land acquisition office in Snow Hill was established March 7, 1966. There Staggers assembled a substantial staff for title work, appraisals, mapping, and negotiations for what Donald E. Lee, chief of the Service's Division of Land and Water Rights, called "this largest of undertakings to date from a negotiation and workload standpoint." In July the initial lands appropriation, $3,860,000 for fiscal year 1967, became available, and $113,385 of it went to Knoerle, Bender, Stone and Associates of Baltimore for a boundary, property, and topography survey of Assateague Island. [4]

The money and survey contract came none too soon for Superintendent Bert Roberts. He had been approached by many owners who considered their lands in effect condemned by the seashore authorization act but who were still liable for property taxes and were anxious to sell. He feared that delays in survey and appraisal would jeopardize the public support he was working to build and maintain. Logistical difficulties aggravated the first year stresses. The Snow Hill lands office was 16 miles from the superintendent's office in Berlin and 21 miles from the Sandy Point bridge to Assateague. The result was frequent poor communications between Roberts and Staggers and frustration for landowners visiting Assateague to discuss the sale of their property with distant Service personnel. [5] This situation was resolved when the two offices were united at the acquired headquarters area in July 1967.

The first land purchase on Assateague was negotiated December 9, 1965, four days after Roberts and Staggers arrived on the scene. Daniel Trimper IV, an Ocean City realtor, had thrown up motel units on two commercial lots in the Ocean Beach subdivision. The purchase agreement, negotiated as an emergency measure to halt further construction, pledged Trimper $27,950 for his hastily improved properties upon receipt of the first lands appropriation. Trimper's advantageous settlement was broadcast to other lot owners in newsletters circulated by the Ocean Beach Club, which publicized the $13,975—per—lot sales price without mentioning that the lots had been improved. The club advised owners to refuse the Government's inevitably lower first offers. Trimper himself circulated a letter on November 9, 1966, implying personal influence with the Government from his transaction and urging owners to employ his services in their negotiations. Responding to a congressional inquiry critical of this apparent impropriety, NPS Assistant Director Harthon L. Bill deplored the Trimper solicitation but declared the Service could do nothing to stop it. [6]

Another development threat came from John T. Moton, president of the Atlantic Ocean Estates subdivision north of Assateague State Park and the large undivided McCabe tract adjoining it. In early November 1966 Moton called to tell Bert Roberts that he was planning to replace his street signs, seek a road access through the McCabe tract, and resume sales promotional activities the following spring. In response to this evident attempt to hurry the Government into a lucrative (for Moton) settlement, Roberts wrote his regional director, "We are inclined to believe this is a bluff, but we will step up surveillance of this part of the Island for indications of activity." [7]

The preceding month, responding to the misinformation broadcast by the Ocean Beach Club and general inquiries from property owners, Roberts issued a "Status of Land Acquisition on Assateague Island" newsletter of his own. First to be acquired, it stated, were those lands essential for initial park development, access, and use: Sections A and B of Ocean Beach (from the state park south to the platted South 17th Street) and the north tip of the island above Atlantic Ocean Estates. Here and in other correspondence with lot owners and concerned legislators, the Service explained its acquisition policies. Two qualified real estate appraisers, Mac Gardiner of Baltimore and E. Philip Williamson of Cambridge, Maryland, had evaluated the subdivision lots under contract. On the basis of their appraisals, reviewed by Park Service specialists, firm, non—negotiable offers were made to owners. [8]

Inevitably there were complaints. Landholders eager to sell whose properties were not in the areas of high management priority were displeased with the delay, although the Service repeatedly defended its case for orderly acquisition from the state park down to the Virginia line: "To proceed in any other fashion would result in a scattering effect and with funds expended on isolated tracts rather than the solid blocks needed for public use." Hardship pleas became common. "Earlier in the acquisition, planning consideration was given to acquiring tracts out of order in hardship cases, a response to one such appeal declared in mid—1967. "However, there have been such a very large number of hardship applications that to comply with all of them would have completely disrupted the orderly acquisition and development process." [9] In answer to protests against the single—offer policy, it was argued that the circumstance of numerous identical unimproved lots rendered the firm fixed price appropriate and more equitable than if neighboring owners were allowed to bargain for different compensation. [10] This response did not mollify many who remained dissatisfied with the Government's take—it—or—leave—it stance, especially those whose investments (including taxes) were not covered by the offer. They found it difficult to accept that their lots could have declined in value over the years while those in seemingly comparable areas such as North Ocean City had increased.

Condemnation suits were brought for lands whose owners could not come to terms with the Government or convey clear title. Until mid—1968 the Service filed declarations of taking in condemnation proceedings, which vested title in the United States immediately. This procedure required the Government to deposit a sum equal to the appraised value of the land with court, enabling the owner to draw upon it. The problem with this arrangement was that the final judgment of the court could and often did exceed the appraised value, obligating the Government to come forth with the balance. An accumulation of such cases could result in compensation commitments exceeding the appropriations ceiling set by Congress.

In mid—1968 the Interior committees asked the Service to discontinue declarations of taking and go to "straight condemnation," whereby title would not be taken until the court judgment was rendered. This permitted the option of abandoning the transaction if the amount awarded were considered too high; on the other hand, it increased the likelihood that the Government's comparability appraisals would be made obsolete by the passage of time and inflation and that the award would indeed be higher, being based on value at judgment rather than at the time the suit was filed. Since straight condemnation afforded no immediate compensation, it also led to many complaints from owners whose court cases were slow in being heard and payments slow in coming. [11]

A sore point with landowners generally was the fact that they had to keep paying county taxes until their properties were taken by the Government. To placate them and improve his public relations, Roberts had sought to intercede with the Worcester County Commission for tax relief on lands destined to be acquired. The money forthcoming to the county from the Federal payment for the Sandy Point bridge, he argued, would offset the forgiven taxes. In January 1969 the Washington Office squelched this effort:

With regard to the matter of tax relief to Assateague landowners, this was never more than a matter of accommodation, and perhaps we were ill—advised to consider this since our Solicitor has indicated that involvement in such matters is an undesirable posture for the National Park Service to participate in any arrangement that will take lands off local tax rolls. We feel now that a considerable part of the property has already been removed from the rolls, and the fact that most owners are non—residents, the adverse influence on community relations is less critical than at the beginning of the land acquisition phase. [12]

"Acquisition of land for this national seashore has been enormously complicated," Assistant Director Robert B. Moore told Maryland Senator Charles McC. Mathias the following month. [13] If anything, he understated the case. In addition to the sheer numbers of tracts and owners involved, the personal dealings, the legal caseload, and the escalating costs, there developed internal dissension about the conduct of the program. John E. Ritchie had succeeded Allen Staggers as Assateague land acquisition officer in the spring of 1967, to be followed by Joseph W. Fehrer in late 1968. Policy direction came from the lands office in Washington headed by Philip O. Stewart. The primary objective of Stewart and his field office was to spend the annual lands appropriations, to maintain program momentum and justify retention of the large field staff. To do this they were more agreeable to making opportunity purchases from willing sellers without close regard for the locations of their tracts. Bert Roberts, on the other hand, was most anxious to stick with the priorities established for acquiring manageable blocks of land and felt that his needs were being subordinated. [14]

"From the management point of view, we have lost control of the Assateague land acquisition program," Roberts wrote Regional Director Lemuel A. Garrison in August 1969. Two months later he repeated his complaints:

We have no knowledge of why it was determined to set up the 1970 fiscal year funds opposite of how we would have recommended at the field level. We have no knowledge of why, even now, we are continually acquiring land that we do not need and that can only cause us additional management problems. We have no knowledge of why we cannot get on with acquisition of some tracts that are in priorities of 2 years ago. We have no accounting of expenditures against the limitation as related to outstanding obligations in order to intelligently look toward the future.

"Our patchwork pattern of land acquisition becomes more discouraging every day," Roberts wrote Garrison again in January 1970. "It is additionally alarming in that we believe we may be close enough to the statutory limitation that boundary adjustments, deletions from the acquisition plan, and possibly corridor or strip acquisition to provide access and connections as may be in order. . . . For several years now, we at the area have been worried about the emerging ownership pattern, which may be the most unsatisfactory in the Service." [15]

The first Assateague condemnation suit, concerning 122 properties acquired by declarations of taking in 1967—68, came to trial in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore in December 1970. The landowners argued that the 1961—65 Assateague sales prices used by the Government for comparability were artificially low because of the state's efforts to discourage development in response to the seashore proposal. They contended that their lots should have been appraised as if an improved road existed through Ocean Beach Section A, claiming that one would have been built in the normal course of events. The much higher lot sales in North Ocean City, where government had not intervened, were cited as the appropriate basis for compensating Assateague owners. The Government asserted the comparability of the 1961—65 island sales, contending that development would have been discouraged in any event by the 1962 storm and the adverse press publicity following from it. The bridge access did not greatly increase values, it was argued, because island sales during the period took completion of the bridge into account. North Ocean City sales were not truly comparable because of the access and higher elevations there. [16]

On March 25, 1971, Judge Roszel C. Thomsen rendered the court's decision and awards in the form of deficiency judgments (i.e., amounts due the owners beyond the Government's appraised values deposited when the declarations of taking were filed). The court awarded totals of between $2,250 and $8,500 (depending on location) for the unimproved residential lots, which were closer to the Government's valuation of $2,000—6,000 than the owners' demands for $8,000—12,000. Less to the Government's liking were the larger deficiencies awarded for certain commercial properties; Dorothy V. Walker, for example, got $49,500 instead of the Government's valuation of $27,500 for Tract 1—1. In the absence of an appeal by the defendants, however, the Service decided to accept the generally favorable overall judgment rather than subjecting itself to the costs and risks of an appeal. [17]

Following Judge Thomsen's decision, some former lot owners who had parted with their properties at the Government's price wrote to complain that they had been shortchanged. The Service politely responded that those holding out for condemnation subjected themselves to legal fees and the risk of lower judgments, and that there was no recourse for the willing sellers. [18]

Judge Thomsen also provided a formula for compensating lot owners in subfrequent condemnation actions based on his $2,250—8,500 judgment in the initial suit. By August 1971, of the $16,250,000 authorized for Assateague land acquisition, only $819,182 remained for the outstanding 2,737 acres. The application of Thomsen's formula to remaining lots and other purchases would result in costs of $3.5 million; additional funds would be needed to cover escalation of values and interest since appraisals and takings. Alternatives to abiding by the formula, including requests for jury trials in the hope of getting lower judgments, were considered and generally rejected by the Service in consultation with the congressional authorization and appropriations committees (although one jury verdict the following year proved favorable to the Government). More money was obviously needed. [19]

In September and October 1971, following discussions with Interior and Service officials, Senator Alan Bible and Representative Wayne N. Aspinall, chairmen of the Senate and House Interior subcommittees, introduced legislation to raise Assateague's ceiling to $20,650,000. [20] The increase, declared necessary to acquire the remaining lots in Ocean Beach and South Ocean Beach, the Atlantic Ocean Estates subdivision, and private hunting lands, was justified on the grounds of adverse court awards and the higher—than—anticipated costs of the individual hunting clubs. On April 11, 1972, the omnibus bill containing the increased authorization—raised now to $21,150,000—was approved by President Richard M. Nixon. [21]

Yet another ceiling increase was found necessary by October 1974. A proposal for wilderness designation in the southern portion of the Maryland part of Assateague required early acquisition of the Popes Island Gun Club for a total of $526,000; $824,000 was still needed for Atlantic Ocean Estates. In all, the Service sought an additional $1.9 million. A year later the request had been lowered to $1,350,000. Congress again supported the increase, which was approved October 21, 1976, placing Assateague's final authorization for lands at $22,400,000. [22] The total thus exceeded by 50 percent the amount originally forecast for the national seashore.

Several factors figured in the lower acquisition priority given Atlantic Ocean Estates, Assateague's northern subdivision. It comprised about 3,657 lots, 195 of which had been sold to individuals. The National Park Service did not plan to actively develop the area, and despite John Moton's stated intentions to revive real estate activity there, little threat of private development existed in the absence of land access. Because that end of the island was moving westward, partially or fully submerging many platted oceanfront lots, time was clearly on the Government's side. Thomas B. McCabe, the wealthy and influential owner of the island from ocean to bay north of the state park, let it be known that he was not anxious for the Service to acquire above him so long as he retained occupancy; he foresaw unwanted pressures for public access across his property from such acquisition. Even with willing sellers, widespread condemnation was judged necessary because the shifting of the land precluded many from obtaining title insurance and conveying clear title. [23]

Interior asked the Justice Department to file a condemnation suit for Atlantic Ocean Estates in October 1970, but at NPS request the filing was delayed indefinitely. In early 1972 the Service proceeded to offer $100 to lot owners who could show good title while informing Dr. James P. Murphy, Moton's successor as president of Atlantic Ocean Estates, that it would not seek general condemnation because of the area's low acquisition priority and the increased expenses resulting from the court judgment on Ocean Beach. [24] This was unwelcome news to the land company, which was anxious to sell at a court—determined price and railed against the delay.

In March 1971 about 50 owners of lots in the subdivision accompanied Service appraisers to view their lands. Many had purchased sight unseen or had not visited since the 1962 storm. As reported by seashore staff, "Practically all were surprised to find that the northern end of the island had moved so far to the west and that a substantial portion of the Atlantic Ocean Estates area is now in the ocean." [25] Many owners who refused the nominal Government offer because it was lower than their purchase price subsequently lost all prospect of compensation when their lots became totally submerged, especially after a storm in 1974, and title passed to the state. Some facing a losing battle with the Atlantic put up a bold front. One complained to his congresswoman that the Service was offering him only $500 for a lot he had paid $1,750 for in 1957. "This lot is now what would be considered ocean front property," he wrote, neglecting to mention why: The intervening lots had become inundated and a quarter of his was already below the mean high water line! The Service response called attention to this detail, noted that the Service offer was based on an eight—year—old appraisal when the ocean was still 110 feet distant, and tactfully suggested that the complainant might want to take the $500 rather than undergo a reappraisal based on the current relationship of the waterline to his property. [26]

Acquisition of the 671—acre McCabe tract south of Atlantic Ocean Estates and the other undivided lands on the bay side of the island proved relatively simple, although in most cases the owners of these improved or hunting properties chose to retain rights of use and occupancy as allowed by the authorizing legislation. Thomas B. McCabe, board chairman of the Scott Paper Company in Philadelphia, had a substantial beach house, boathouse, and other improvements on his land. Bert Roberts informed him in March 1966 that the Service would purchase his property in one piece but at a late date, because it posed no threat of adverse development and was not needed for seashore development or use.

The Maryland Department of Forests and Parks, eager to expand its territory on Assateague, contacted McCabe that October about buying 87 of his acres between Assateague State Park and the Sandy Point bridge. McCabe wrote Roberts to alert him to this move, enabling Roberts to invite himself to join Deputy Director William A. Parr of the state agency at a meeting the following month in McCabe's office. There McCabe, unenthusiastic about Maryland's development plans for its land, said he would stand by his agreement to sell his entire property to the Federal Government. [27]

The state competition led the Service to advance its dealings with McCabe for the tract sought by Parr. "It is my firm belief that the State Department of Forests and Parks believes that ownership of this tract of land is necessary for them to use as a club to prevent the Park Service from overriding them or vetoing plans for their park when the Seashore road is constructed and to guarantee that the State Park can expand north and west in the future and again without National Park Service approval of the type of development," Associate Regional Director George A. Palmer wrote Regional Director Garrison in April 1967 after another meeting with Parr. "...[I]f we have not acquired the land by May 1 the State Park people are positive that they will condemn it. This action could lead to all kinds of trouble...." On April 14 McCabe accepted a Service offer of $65,000 for the 87—acre tract at the island's bridgehead. At that time he balked at taking $1,150,000 for his entire property, which his appraiser, Mac Gardiner, had valued at more than $2 million. [28]

Still concerned about Maryland's designs on McCabe's remaining 584 acres, Roberts in January 1968 urged acquisition of the tract ahead of schedule in fiscal year 1969. The Washington Office, guided by Phil Stewart, opposed this action, stating that the property would not be adversely developed in McCabe's hands, that the Service was committed to buying out the small landowners first, that fiscal 1969 land acquisition appropriations were unlikely to be adequate, and that the state was legally authorized to purchase the property from either McCabe or the Federal Government in any event. [29]

On November 7, 1969, Roberts finally achieved his objective. McCabe took $1,600,000 for the balance of his property and retained rights of use and occupancy for 10 years. (The proceeds from his 87 acres had gone to Swarthmore College; the $1.6 million he donated to the University of Pennsylvania.)

One of the largest properties south of the state park remaining to be acquired in 1972 was owned by Wyle Maddox, a Chincoteague, Virginia, developer. It consisted of 489 acres, 110 of which were in subdivision lots. Part was within the Pope Bay area then proposed for development by the Service. Joseph W. Fehrer, Assateague's last land acquisition officer, estimated the value of Maddox's property at $369,410 and obtained approval from Phil Stewart to negotiate a sale at up to $370,000. In March 1972 a deal was struck at $400,000 and the purchase was subsequently consummated. [30]

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Last Updated: 27-Oct-2003