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Leigh family preserves a piece of Betterton

BETTERTON — Rob Leigh thinks often about his grandmother, Lillie Leigh, and the walks they took together when he was a child.

They would walk from the Leigh house along the beach in one direction and return through the woods.

“I think about that fairly often — the walks we used to have and the help grandparents can be to their grandchildren,” he said.

Lillie Leigh would tell her grandchildren, “You’re worth a waterfront farm.”

With that phrase, Rob Leigh said, Lillie Leigh put the conservation bug in the ear of her grandchildren. They put value in that property, but Rob Leigh never dreamed he would own it. Years later, his sister would introduce him to his future wife, Linda, on that beach.

In the early 1970s, a developer asked Betterton to annex the farm property adjacent to the Leigh family home. Rob and Linda Leigh opposed the development, which would have included a golf course and about 200 houses.

The development never came to fruition, and the farm was auctioned in 1997. Rob and Linda Leigh bought the property with the encouragement of the extended Leigh family, in the hopes of preventing another developer from building something not in line with the Leighs’ vision of Betterton.

The Leighs immediately evaluated the property, which has been farmed since the 17th century, Rob Leigh said. They worked with Kent County Soil Conservation and the Department of Natural Resources. They put in five waterways to help control erosion, restored a 1-acre pond, planted about 1,800 trees to help absorb runoff, and planted some warm season grasses.

In December, the Leighs placed on the property a conservation easement held by Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and Maryland Environmental Trust.

“We go up there as a family, and we camp on the farm,” Rob Leigh said. “We do a lot of hiking and fishing, and it keeps us working hard, and it keeps us together.”

He said the property keeps the family calm and helps them work together to accomplish objectives. He will never forget cleaning up after Hurricane Isabel and everyone returning home happy and close to one another.

“We’re very proud to not only own but know that the property will stay just in family oversight or use, but others can know and experience the beauty of a standing woods that provides beautiful views of the Chesapeake Bay waterfront,” Leigh said.

Rob Leigh said the property has been important to his entire family, including his late grandparents, his late father John Leigh; his late brother John Scott Leigh Jr.; his sister, Harriet Russell; his wife, Linda; and their children Thomas and Jeffrey.

“We are thrilled that this easement allows us to protect not only the important forest habitat and productive ag lands, but that it also helps to protect the federally threatened Puritan tiger beetle,” Executive Director Rob Etgen said. “We are grateful to the Leigh family for their excellent stewardship of this land and for their foresight to protect it.”

The property consists of 22 acres of agricultural land, 86 acres of woods, three acres of meadow, and one acre of pond. The Sassafras River shoreline provides habitat for the tiger beetle, and the forest offers habitat for nesting birds, populations of which are declining in Maryland.

Bald eagles, ospreys and deer also are found on the property.

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