Nearly 300 acres of beachfront, marsh and forest are being added to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.

The $12 million preservation deal, brokered by The Nature Conservancy, expands the refuge by one-fourth, to 1,414 acres. When the refuge opened in 1984, it had just 180 acres.

Developers had in their sights the two properties-82 acres of beachfront and 210 acres of seaside marsh and forest-for the future construction of homes, condos, roads and shops.

The owners, instead, decided to sell their family lands to the federal government.

The transfer preserves key habitat for migratory birds that stop, rest and feed at the southern tip each year as part of their international trek between South America and the Arctic Circle.

"To be honest, I wasn't sure I'd ever see this happen in my lifetime," said Susan Rice, manager of the Eastern Shore refuge, which is located near the foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Northampton County.

The federal government typically moves slowly to compete for attractive properties with private investors.

Dave Harris, The Nature Conservancy's director of land programs, successfully negotiated deals with the two property owners.

Over the last three years, the federal government has slowly repaid the conservancy its $12 million for the two tracts, with the last installment coming in March.

Harris and Rice praised U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-VA, for helping to secure federal dollars.

Thom Dixon had farmed one of the tracts for years. Under federal ownership, thousands of hardwood trees and native shrubs will be planted to entice more birds and wildlife.

The larger of the two tracts was sold by John Bull, a longtime resident. Its 210 acres include tidal wetlands, mud flats and tiny creeks that criss-cross the property. Tall, piney forests and low-lying fields grow slightly inland from the marshes and provide habitat for fox, deer, raccoon, opossum and birds.