Arson Destroys 12 New Md. Homes
30 Empty Houses Damaged in Subdivision That Is Subject of Environmental Dispute

By Joshua Partlow and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 7, 2004; Page A01  (must register to view original article)

A dozen empty houses in a new Maryland subdivision that is the focus of a long-running environmental dispute were destroyed and numerous others were damaged yesterday in what officials said were more than 20 coordinated, methodically planned arsons.

No one was hurt, but the attack left the Hunters Brooke subdivision, near Indian Head in Charles County, scarred with blackened, gutted houses and terrified residents in the quiet community near the Potomac River about 25 miles downstream from the District.

A preliminary investigation found traces of a fire-starting accelerant in four houses that were the first to be examined by investigators, officials said. Damage was estimated at $10 million, and William E. Barnard, the state fire marshal, said it was the biggest arson in state history. In addition to the 12 homes destroyed, about 30 were damaged, authorities said.

Investigators said more than 20 fires were set. Some houses were burned to the ground, and the second floors and roofs of others were burned out. The structures seemed to have been targeted at random, investigators said, with some houses spared while others nearby were destroyed.

Investigators said the fires were confined to the unoccupied section of the development, away from homes where people live. About 70 houses had been finished or were under construction in the subdivision, and 319 more were planned, the developer said.

For the past five years, two subdivisions in the area, Hunters Brooke and the yet-to-be-built Falcon Ridge, have been a source of fierce opposition from environmental groups, which have sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers for allowing houses to be built in the area.

Environmentalists assert that the houses will damage Araby Bog, a 6.5-acre wetlands area that is home to endangered insects and such rare plants as the halberd-leaved greenbrier and red milkweed. The bog filters rain and upwelling waters that feed into the nearby Mattawoman Creek and the Potomac.

Scores of investigators from county, state and federal agencies were on the scene or headed there yesterday, including a 15-member "national response team" from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives made up of chemists, interviewers, schematic artists, fire cause-and-origin experts and other specialists.

An ATF spokesman, Mike Campbell, said an anti-terrorism task force of local and federal investigators was called to the scene to explore whether the fires were set by radical environmentalists.

Environmental extremists have claimed responsibility for similar attacks elsewhere, often through online postings or messages left at the scene. Federal authorities classify such extremists as domestic terrorists. No such claim had been asserted as of yesterday afternoon, said Theresa R. Stoop, special agent in charge of the ATF's Baltimore office.

Jonathan Tepper, sales and marketing manager for the D.C. division of Lennar Corp., the builder for the development, said he did not believe the fires were set by anyone opposed to the environmental impact.

"Our concern about this whole thing is the families," Tepper said. "Several of them had bought homes as Christmas presents for their families."

Terri Rookard, who had moved to Hunters Brooke four days earlier, said she was awakened before dawn when her eldest son burst into her room saying that he smelled smoke. She looked out her window and saw flames pouring out of a nearby home. More fire was visible through another window.

"Then we just panicked," said Rookard, 35. "We couldn't tell what was going on. It was a nightmare. We were trying to get out, and there was fire everywhere."

When members of the Potomac Heights Volunteer Fire Department arrived in the area about 5 a.m., three homes were on fire, said Chief Scott Creelman. Shortly afterward, several other homes went up in flames, he said, until 21 houses were burning.

"Everything just happened so fast," Creelman said. "Two more houses lit off. Then three more houses. . . . There was a progression."

More than 100 firefighters rushed to the scene from six counties in Maryland and Virginia.

Charles County sheriff's deputies blocked the entrance to the subdivision along Route 225, and authorities led reporters on a brief tour at 2:30 p.m.

The charred wreckage of the houses, which were in various stages of construction, was scattered across hundreds of yards along three streets. What remained of some homes along Cabinwood Court, the scene of the worst damage, was still smoldering.

Some houses were reduced to brick rubble, and others had melted vinyl siding. Shattered glass and window screens littered the lawns.

The site is one of the few remaining examples in the world of a magnolia bog, so named because the wetlands are ringed by sweet bay magnolias, evergreen trees that blossom every spring with fragrant white flowers. Rod Simmons, a botanist with the Maryland Native Plant Society, which opposes the subdivision, said only 11 magnolia bogs exist in the world, and all are in the Washington area.

"It's really the last viable sweet bay magnolia bog in the world," said Ellie Cline, a Charles County resident who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. The lawsuit argues that the agencies should not have authorized the building. "It's an incredibly valuable natural resource."

Cline said she did not believe environmental activists were involved in the fire. "I don't know of anybody associated with this fight that would think this way," she said.

Some residents said there had been previous problems at the subdivision, such as appliances stolen from vacant homes. Rookard, a program specialist with the State Department's Bureau for African Affairs, said a neighbor told her that someone spray-painted racial slurs on one home. She said most of the new homeowners she has met are African American.

The homes, whose prices range from $373,000 to $486,000, are on quarter-acre lots. Many have four or five bedrooms and two-car garages.

The development is at the crest of a housing boom that is pushing the Washington suburbs farther and farther into rural areas once far removed from the city.

Many residents who recently purchased homes in Hunters Brooke spent a tense day waiting outside police cordons to learn about the condition of their properties. Authorities said residents would be kept out of their homes overnight because power had been shut off and the subdivision is a crime scene.

Everton Rowe, 37, an engineer with the State Department, said the four-bedroom, $450,000 home he planned to move into in January sustained some damage, but he did not know the extent. He said he saw environmental protesters picketing the subdivision late last year. If environmental protection was a motive in the crime, Rowe said, it would be a tragedy.

"If you're going to threaten people's lives to protect a forest or an animal, something is twisted in your head," said Rowe, the father of two young children. "This is going to put pain in my daughter's little heart. She's not going to want to stay here."

Bob DeGroot, the leader of an environmental group that had opposed the development, said he doubted that "any environmental group had anything to do with" the fire.

"We don't have environmental groups in Maryland that do those sorts of things," said DeGroot, president of the Maryland Alliance for Greenway Improvement and Conservation. "When we disagree with something, we take them to court."

The FBI said it had not decided whether to investigate the blazes as part of a pattern of fires set across the country, for which the group Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility. Those fires caused more than $60 million in damage in the past 18 months.

Members of ELF, known as "elves," are increasingly targeting suburbia, especially new developments that are encroaching on wilderness. FBI spokesman Barry Maddox said that investigators have not ruled out any possibilities and that "anything and everything would be considered right now."

"We're not limiting it to domestic terrorism or anything else," Maddox said. "We're not coming to any kind of conclusion at this time."

Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, Sari Horwitz, Allison Klein, Amit R. Paley and Eric Rich and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.