Situated about a mile southeast of downtown Woodsboro sits Comus Construction, a property of more than 1,000 acres where Brad Hill mines pozzolans, used to make many forms of concrete.
The mining operation, south of Md. 550, is hundreds of acres, and contains mine shafts, mineral deposits and vehicles used in mining those pozzolans.
North of the county road, however, is a vast reservoir on hundreds of acres, surrounded by greenery, trees and other wildlife. A gravel road extends around that body of water, a clear bluish-green home to several aquatic species.
In the next three to four years, that site could be home to scuba diving lessons, sessions and related attractions — a project that may cost up to $30 million.
Hill, owner of Comus Construction, is working with Matt Skogebo, owner of Aquanautics Scuba Center in Baltimore, to hopefully create that facility, revolving around a reservoir north of the mining operation and Md. 550.
Skogebo said along with the scuba diving operations, Hill wants to move an old wooden barn on the property near the reservoir and make an ecology center. There are also preliminary plans to build a clubhouse and restaurant north of the diving reservoir, along with campgrounds, RV campgrounds and a bathhouse throughout the property, he added.
Hill and Skogebo both said plans are preliminary, as they are working with county officials to change the zoning code for the property. The challenge, they said, is maintaining mineral mining on the property while allowing for outdoor recreation and tourism.
“I will never give up the right to mine the property. That would be incredibly stupid,” Hill said. “We as miners see our value similar to a farmer. If a silo’s full of corn, that’s a good thing, and the banker will lend you money because it’s full of corn. But if the silo’s empty, then there’s no money to be lent and manage your business.”
The ecology center is important to Hill, because it will be an educational resource for the community and county schools, he said.
He and Skogebo met last week with County Council Vice President Michael Blue (R) and Roger Wilson, director of government affairs and public policy in the county executive’s office, to discuss the proposal.
Blue said he is working on legislation concerning a text amendment to the county’s zoning code. He added that he’s going to rely on staff from the county planning department and county attorney’s office to help him draft that amendment and overall bill, given its complexity.
He said that safety is a priority, but given that the mining operation and reservoir is separated by Md. 550, that shouldn’t be difficult to ensure. Blue is confident he can introduce a bill that would allow recreational use on the property and mineral mining, and get it passed through the council in two to three months.
Mike Wilkins, director of the Department of Development Review, said county officials are still waiting to see what that zoning change might look like.
But Blue said Hill and Skogebo’s project has great potential for Woodsboro and the county.
“I think it is very feasible. … Brad has a pretty clear vision on what he wants to do with Matt,” Blue said. “With the finances that Brad has, the sky is the limit.”
Skogebo started offering diving sessions and lessons at the site last summer, before county officials told him that was illegal. He estimates that 100 to 150 people visited per weekend.
The clarity of the water beneath the surface — which offers visibility of up to 50 feet — is remarkable, he said. The reservoir reaches depths of 220 feet, making it ideal for scuba diving.
Something that could enhance the project even further is if Skogebo can place a deserted C-130 aircraft on the property under water. That would offer divers something to explore, along with the wildlife and greenery.
“If we did that, we’d be the only divable C-130 [airplane] in the Western Hemisphere,” Skogebo said. “At that point, you’re bringing in tourists from all over the world to dive a very unique environment.”
Other than Blue, other local officials are supportive of the concept. County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said she met with planning staff over a month ago, who suggested it might be worth subdividing the reservoir side of the property to allow recreational use and scuba diving.
Whether that is through a zoning text amendment or annexing the property into Woodsboro is still being determined, but Gardner said Hill is ultimately going to have a lot of influence in the process.
“I think there’s more than one way to do the cure, but at the end of the day, there’s a property owner involved … and so every zoning change is really driven by the property owner,” Gardner said.
Hill and Skogebo have presented preliminary plans to the Woodsboro burgess and commissioners. Burgess Bill Rittlemeyer said he’s open to the concept and annexation, but that might take time.
Hill would need to connect water and sewer lines to the town’s system, Rittlemeyer said. There are also safety concerns regarding the annexation of a mining operation south of Md. 550.
“I’m not overly anxious to annex an active mine into the town of Woodsboro because I have no idea what liabilities may lie with that,” Rittlemeyer said. “Ten years down the road, there’s some kind of contamination, and now it’s part of the town and now people are trying to hold the town liable.”
He added, however, that he liked the idea.
“My initial reaction was, ‘this is pretty neat, I want to hear more,’” he said. “And that’s what we’re looking for, we’re looking for more info on the proposals.”
He has invited Skogebo and Hill to present at the town’s July meeting.
Skogebo anticipates the project would be completed in phases. Within roughly a year, he hopes the scuba diving operations can start. Then within the next two to three years, the clubhouse/restaurant, campground and ecology center would open, he added.
Estimates put the entire project at up to $30 million, he said. Hill declined to say how much he would put up, but he and his company are interested in providing support.
“We’ll be willing to put up what’s necessary to get this finished,” he said.
Both he and Skogebo want the business to open to benefit Woodsboro and the county. There’s a need for scuba diving and economic activity in that region of the county.
“I can’t pick this quarry up and go to Virginia,” Hill said, standing beside the reservoir last week. “The truth is we need this, and I’m in it for the long haul.”
Skogebo agreed. He said the nearest places to be certified in the region are four hours north or south, outside of the Baltimore area.
“We created this based on the need that existed in the community,” Skogebo said. “I recognize there was no other place really to go, there was no one doing this kind of thing, there’s not a bunch of things for ecotourism in the state.”
He said he plans to with the county’s planning and health departments.
“It is a pretty large scope project with a lot of different facets, a lot of different pieces, that all want to work together,” Skogebo said. “So it’s just getting everyone on the same page.”
Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel.