TILGHMAN ISLAND -- Floating docks, built to accommodate expensive yachts, nestle on the lee of tiny Avalon Island, which for decades served as a marketplace for Eastern Shore watermen harvesting oysters from the Choptank River and Chesapeake Bay.
Over the past year, however, the half-acre island, created fropiles of oyster shells discarded by the long-defunct Tilghman Packing Co., has undergone a dramatic transition as developers of Tilghman-on-Chesapeake turn it into the exclusive yacht club of an expensive and controversial subdivision.
Columbia-based developer Armiger Properties Inc., in partnership with the international real estate company Lovell Land Inc., won the right to develop the island, a 180-acre farm that connects to the island with a long causeway and several other small parcels on Tilghman Island, over opposition from local watermen.
At public hearings, watermen, who make up most of thpopulation of Tilghman Island, argued that the 114-slip facility would pollute nearby oyster bars and the expensive homes in the subdivision would cause their property taxes to rise dramatically.
It has taken more than three years for the 200-acre subdivisionwhich developers describe as perhaps "the last yacht club community of its kind" on the Chesapeake Bay, to cross the hurdles of opposition -- including major changes in zoning regulations, and complete $10 million in improvements for the 73-lot community.
Now the developers face their biggest challenge yet: finding buyers in a soft real estate market. Lots have been on the market for almost a year, but as of January, none has sold.
Tilghman-on-Chesapeake is being marketed primarily as upscale second homes or retirement homes for highly successful business people, living as far away as Philadelphia, who want a home and a boat slip with easy access to Chesapeake Bay.
Tilghman Island is one of only a few ports in the middle Eastern Shore area that has quick access to the bay. It also is in easy sailing distance to favorite ports such as Oxford, Solomons and Annapolis.
"The idea here is you come out of the yacht club and in a feminutes you're popping your spinnaker and sailing," said Alfred "Tim" Kagan, president of Kagan Associates Inc., which is marketing the subdivision.
This is a selling point the developers tried to capitalize on last year by mailing brochures to yacht owners around the Chesapeake, but while some couples expressed interest in the subdivision, they had no buyers.
Mr. Kagan said he believes the lots will begin to sell once thyacht club is completed in May and a model house is built in the summer.
"A lot of people said, 'Call us when there's something to see,' " said Gary Colton, development director for the project.
"It's difficult to convince people to buy on a promise. They want to see what they're going to buy and they want to see it completed," Mr. Colton explained.
The price tag on the lots -- between $125,000 and $395,000 for half- to one-acre parcels, most with only a view of the water -- is not the cause of lack of sales, because for that price, buyers at Tilghman-on-Chesapeake get far more than a lot, Mr. Kagan said.
They also acquire a boat slip and a condominium interest in Avalon Island, the yacht club and boat slips, together expected to be worth in the millions of dollars once completed.
Even without a condominium interest in a yacht club facilitywaterfront lots are commanding high prices now on the Eastern Shore.
Prospective buyers who mount the stairs to the Old Bay Room on the second floor of the clubhouse on Avalon Island will have a spectacu
lar view of Harris Creek, the Choptank River and Dogwood Cove on Tilghman Island where a fleet of skipjacks, some of the last remaining boats working under sail in the United States, are often tied up.
Having its yacht club on an island, reached by a long causewayis just part of what makes Tilghman-on-Chesapeake attractive to buyers, Mr. Kagan said.
The subdivision is a planned community, with roads, utilities and sewerage already in place and a set of covenants restricting everything from the height of bushes to the type of house that can be built.
Covenants, for example, would limit the style of house to a CapCod/Nantucket-style, harmonious with the seascape. The houses are expected to cost in the $250,000 to $600,000 range, Mr. Kagan said.
While only 12 or 13 lots will be waterfront, all of the properties are angled to have unrestricted views of the Choptank River, he added.
Developers also plan to build a swimming pool on Avalon Island and tennis courts on Tilghman Island.
The developers are sensitive to the complaints of longtime residents of Tilghman who say the ritzy subdivision will increase their property taxes and change their way of life.
The developers constructed a long white picket fence along the main road in an effort to make the development fit in aesthetically with the watermen's village.
They also hired biologists who took samples around the island and determined that there were no oysters in the immediate vicinity.
But the consensus among the local people is that developmencan only harm the way of life on Tilghman, said one longtime resident.
"It's a quiet little place that's been a fisherman's and crabber's town," said Calvin Lewis, an employee of Fairbanks Tackle on Tilghman Island, where watermen often congregate before daybreak signals the start of a new workday on the water.
"People don't want to see this big a development at this time," Mr. Lewis said. "People here have a hard time to get by without taxes going up. It's going to be a headache."