Oxford sounds bold call for firefighters Volunteers lured by bargain homes

September 30, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

OXFORD -- When the fire siren breaks the silence over this placid village on the banks of the Tred Avon River, Durrie Hayes doesn't wonder where the blaze is. He wonders if anyone will show up to put it out.

Once an important Eastern Shore port bustling with laborers and shopkeepers who didn't hesitate to answer the fire bell, today's Oxford is so gentrified that finding enough people to join the volunteer fire department is a problem.

"It's scary when the call goes off," said Mr. Hayes, who grew up in Oxford and serves on the town commission. "You wonder how many times it has to go off before it's answered."

So Oxford officials are pushing an extraordinary plan to energize the tottering volunteer company. If an individual agrees to help on fire and ambulance calls, the town will build a house, help lend the individual the money to pay for it and practically throw in the lot for free.

Not a hasty decision, the housing plan has been debated and toyed with for more than four years. Other solutions to the shortage of volunteer firefighters were examined. But without doubling the town's 54-cent property tax rate to pay for a professional fire crew -- a prospect few people took seriously -- nothing else seemed as promising.

"There's no alternative," said William Bradley Jr., a town commissioner who, at age 70, no longer bolts from his chair when the siren wails. "People my age can't fight fires. We need youths to join the fire company."

Young adults are scarce in this upscale section of Talbot County. Real estate is at a premium and even small homes in town fetch several hundred thousand dollars on today's market. Century-old wooden houses along the waterfront often go for more than $500,000.

Determined to remain small and free from the hordes of tourists that clog the streets of nearby St. Michaels, Oxford has controlled its growth. Jobs are limited to the town's handful of boatyards, shops and restaurants.

Young people have fled

The high cost of living and the stagnant job pool have helped drive many young people away.

It hasn't always been this way. At the turn of the century, when the Chesapeake Bay oyster was the coin of the realm, Oxford was home to more than 1,000 people whose livelihoods depended upon seafood and boat-building.

Oxford survived the decline of oyster by gradually changing from a working town to a quiet and well-heeled retreat for moneyed families from outside the Shore.

Over the past two decades, the town's population -- now about 725 -- has gotten older and wealthier. About 35 percent of the residents are older than 65. Many others own second homes here and show up only on weekends to sail their boats or admire the scenic water views.

Oxford's last school was closed in 1971. So few youngsters live here that ballplayers from Trappe are recruited for the town's Little League team.

In the past decade, active membership in the fire company has dropped from more than 50 to 25. Officials sometimes wait an extra minute or two hoping the emergency siren will yield more crew members for a run, but sometimes the fire and ambulance teams go out dangerously understaffed.

"We'll go out short-handed," said Mark Price, the company's chief engineer. "It all depends on who happens to be around."

To reverse the trend, town commissioners have set aside about 12 acres of property near an industrial park for a 24-unit housing development designed to lure youthful, first-time home buyers who otherwise could not afford to live in Oxford.

The individual houses, which will be presold to prospective residents, will cost about $65,000 to build. Since the lots, which are owned by the town, have a value of about $35,000 each, the total package of house and land is $100,000.

But buyers will have to borrow only $65,000 to pay for construction. The town will hold a second mortgage on the land, and homeowners will not be required to make payments on that as long as they actively participate in the fire company as a firefighter or emergency medical technician.

Deal offered to others

While the deal also will be offered to people who work full time at a business or municipal job in town, "the most important part of this -- and to me the only part -- is the fire company," said Commissioner Bradley.

Homeowners who later leave the fire company or stop working at a job within town limits will have to begin paying the second mortgage. If an owner decides to sell the house, the town has the right of first refusal.

Oxford officials say they need to finish working out details of the loan package with a local bank before they begin accepting applications, probably in several weeks. Applicants will have to prove they can meet monthly mortgage payments -- which would amount to about $500 -- and pay a nonrefundable deposit of $3,000 into an escrow account.

Despite some misgivings in a town that has grown proud of its exclusivity, voters approved the plan after they were persuaded the new houses, while affordable, would not be a low-income housing project.

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