BERLIN – One year after an historic, pristine piece of
waterfront property along Assawoman Bay and the St. Martin’s River in northern
Worcester County was auctioned for $8.7 million, the local churches that sold
the 400-acre-plus tract are reaping the benefits of the sale.
Potential bidders from all over the world showed up last
April to bid on the historic Townsend farm, a 412-acre tract along the
waterfront in northern Worcester County. The auction created a buzz in the
weeks leading up to the auction, which was held in a tent on the site with
views of the Ocean City skyline.
The property’s former owner, the late John G. Townsend, a
former governor of Delaware at the turn of the last century and a two-term U.S.
Senator, deeded the property to three area churches in the 1960s with the
understanding the farmers working on the land would be allowed to continue to
do so until they died.
The last of the farmers working the historic tract died in
January 2006, converting full ownership of the land to St. Paul’s by the Sea in
Ocean City, the Zion Church in Bishopville and the Salem Church in Selbyville,
Del. The three churches then collectively decided to sell off the property for
their mutual benefit, setting up the historic auction.
Hundreds of would-be buyers and curiosity seekers gathered
at the site on auction day in anticipation of the sale as private helicopters
circled overhead, at least one of which delivered a prospective buyer. The
entire property was divided into three parcels, the largest being a 246-acre
tract along the water, as well as another 91-acre tract and a smaller six-acre
piece that connected the two larger pieces.
The Marshall Auction-Marketing Company, which conducted
the sale on behalf of the three churches, started the bidding for the largest
parcel at $10 million, but there were no takers at that price and the bidding
then started at $3 million. The bidding, driven by buyers from all over the
country, quickly escalated to $4.8 million, and when the other two parcels were
sold, the total price for the entire 400-acre-plus tract had risen to $8.7
million. The intent from the beginning was to sell the three parcels together
as part of a whole.
When the dust finally settled after the whirlwind auction,
Lillian Rios, originally of New York, who has vast land holdings in northern
Virginia, emerged as the successful bidder for the historic property.
As the auction drew to its dramatic end, auctioneer Doug
Marshall said, “Churches, I have the feeling you won’t be doing many pancake
breakfasts any more,” and while his sentiments may prove to be true, the three
churches that split the nearly $9 million windfall have not strayed far from
their pre-sale missions. While the proceeds from the sale have provided the
churches with some fiscal breathing room, the money has not triggered a big
spending spree in any case.
“It’s certainly had a big impact,” said Father David
Dingwall of St. Paul’s by the Sea in Ocean City. “We’ve got it invested because
we wanted to deliberately take some time and not rush in to anything.”
A representative from the Salem Church in Selbyville, who
preferred to remain anonymous, echoed Dingwall’s sentiments.
“We decided to resist being impulsive,” she said. “Most of
it has been invested and the interest has been distributed to some of our
mission-giving. Some of it is going to something different each month.”
Dingwall said St. Paul’s is in the process of creating a
strategic plan and some of the money will likely be used to help implement that
“We’re in the midst of developing a strategic plan and
whatever comes out of that, whatever the plan calls for, we will likely apply
some of this money toward its completions. One of the things we’re working on is
setting up a St. Paul’s by the Sea Foundation and an endowment fund,” Dingwall
While much of its share of the $8.7 million windfall has
not been earmarked for any specific purpose yet, St. Paul’s has been able to
use some of the proceeds of the land sale for capital improvements.
“We needed to replace the roof on the church and that work
is getting ready to get underway,” he said. “The church has some physical needs
and some of the money can be used to meet them.”
However, Dingwall said the proceeds from the sale will not
be used for the day-to-day operating costs for the church, but rather will
likely be devoted to more spiritual goals. “Our goal is not to use the proceeds
to keep the church operating,” he said. “We’re hoping to devote it to things we
wouldn’t typically be able to do.”
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what Rios has planned for
the historic site. No plans have been submitted for any of the three parcels,
according to county staffers, and any potential development would have many hurdles
to overcome. Much of the tract is made up of unbuildable areas including marsh
and wetlands. The largest parcel is currently zoned A-1 for agriculture
although there is some R-1 residential zoning on the property. None of the
historic tract was targeted as a potential growth area in the county’s recently
adopted comprehensive plan and there is no public water or sewer in the