Arson Suspected in Fires in Posh Md. Subdivision; FBI Also Looking into Possible Ecoterrorism

December 8, 2004

Investigators suspect arson in at least four of the fires that destroyed a dozen homes and burned several others in Indian Head, a posh Maryland subdivision under construction near a nature preserve, and the FBI said it would look into ecoterrorism as a possible motive.

Some $10 million in damage was done as 41 homes burned early this week at the Hunters Brooke subdivision, about 25 miles south of Washington. Environmental and community groups tried to block the development in a lawsuit last year that claimed it would hurt one of the nation’s last undisturbed magnolia bogs.

Arson caused the fires in at least four homes near Indian Head in Charles County, said Faron Taylor, a deputy state fire marshal.

“We are not going to reveal where in the homes the fires were set, or the method of ignition,” Taylor said. “Only the perps and us know that, and we’re not going to tip our hand.”

FBI spokesman Barry Maddox said FBI agents examined the scene, and ecoterrorism was one of the motives that would be investigated.

The homes, which were not occupied, were priced between $400,000 and $500,000. The Sierra Club called the 319-unit development “quintessential sprawl” in its Fall 2000 sprawl report, noting it is far from existing infrastructure and “threatens a fragile wetland and important historical sites near the Chesapeake Bay.”

The homes, on lots about a quarter acre each, were spread over a 10-acre area, Taylor said. Television coverage showed fire at scattered spots around the neighborhood.

Taylor said a motive had not been determined. The Sierra Club issued a statement saying it “strongly condemns all acts of violence in the name of the environment.”

No injuries had been reported in the fires near the state’s Mattawoman Natural Environment Area.

The fires were reported before 5 a.m. Monday, drawing firefighters from Charles and three other counties to the

Harry Phillips, who lives behind the development, told WUSA-TV in Washington that the fire was not far from Araby Bog, an area some have been trying to preserve. The Sierra Club has said the development would severely degrade one of the state’s largest magnolia bogs.

Environmental groups and some county residents sued the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers last year, claiming they had violated the Clean Water Act by granting permits that allowed construction at the site.

On July 23, U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte denied a request for an injunction against construction of the development, but ordered the Army Corp to provide a “more complete explanation” of its decision authorizing the sewer line and road in the subdivision. That same day, the Army Corp filed an appeal of that decision.

Patricia Stamper, an Indian Head resident and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the environmental and community groups also argued that building the homes would destroy the rural flavor of area, she said.

Stamper said investigators had not contacted her Monday, and she doubted members any of the groups involved in the lawsuit would have turned to arson.

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