Cape St. Claire offers alternative to city life


May 29, 1994|By Donna Weaver | Donna Weaver,Contributing Writer

In 1954, 12-year-old Robert St. Clair and his family spent their first winter in Cape St. Claire hovering around the stone fireplace in their bayfront cottage.

Built in the 1940s for city people escaping the summer heat, the one-story cottage had neither insulation nor a heating system.

"The home was built for summer use, so the only heat source was from the fireplace," recalls Mr. St. Clair, 51, who lives across the street from his boyhood home. His family sold the house a few years ago.

The family remodeled the cottage and added a heating system so they could enjoy the one thing they would never consider changing: the view. The Magothy River and Chesapeake Bay were just a few feet from their back door; Gibson Island was within hollering distance across the Magothy.

The St. Clairs -- who have no connection to the community's name -- gave up their life in Baltimore for that view, as did many other city dwellers, lured by a new community surrounded by four bodies of water: Deep Creek, the Magothy River, the Chesapeake Bay and the Little Magothy.

Once a small collection of summer cottages, Cape St. Claire has become a bustling community of 2,200 homes, almost as many boats and about 7,000 residents. Many live in waterfront homes; those who don't still can sunbathe at one of three private community beaches, try crabbing and fishing off the Lake Claire pier or launch their boat at Deep Creek.

While Cape St. Claire residents are proud of their sandy beaches, they're leery of publicizing them. Too many outsiders are using them, says Gretel Derby, a longtime resident.

Those outsiders probably won't find their cars after frolicking on the beaches or boating on the river. Only cars with Cape St. Claire stickers are allowed on the waterfront parking lots; others are usually towed. Cape St. Claire residents pay a $10 annual fee to the Cape St. Claire Improvement Association, which administers the stickers.

Residents also pay a $30 annual tax to the community association for administrative costs, special security and maintenance of the beaches, playgrounds and other community property.

"This is like a little city without the infrastructure," Ms. Derby says.

Although water is a major draw, people have moved into the community for other reasons.

There are the local schools, including Broadneck High School and Cape St. Claire Elementary. There's the Cape St. Claire Garden Club, the Cape St. Claire Volunteer Fire Department, the Broadneck library, the medical center, the Cape St. Claire Shopping Center -- which includes Graul's grocery store -- and the Cape St. Claire Recreation Council, which sponsors children's sports. There's even a monthly community newsletter called "The Caper," which began about 40 years ago.

"This is a self-contained community," says Mona LaCovey, a 20-year resident and agent for Champion Realty Inc. "It's a lifestyle. It's away from the hustle and bustle."

For a waterfront community, the homes remain affordable. "You can still find homes for under $150,000 that are near the water," Ms. LaCovey says.

The average price for non-waterfront homes sold in Cape St. Claire over the last 12 months was $133,200. For the waterfront homes, the average was $285,375.

People will find just about any style of home here, from older stucco cottages with flat roofs to split foyers, Cape Cods and ranchers. This isn't your normal cookie-cutter subdivision with rows of houses that look the same. There's diversity here, and that's the way the River Bay Company wanted it.

The company created the community of Cape St. Claire in 1949 when it subdivided farmland into lots. People built their own homes -- unlike most subdivisions, where developers require people to buy the homes, too. Some Cape St. Claire lot owners pitched tents on their land during the summer while saving up to build a house.

"It's very eclectic, which is something we like," says Ms. Derby, who lives in a renovated and enlarged waterfront cottage built by her grandfather, William Turner, in the 1920s.

"It's very community-oriented," adds Joe Ford, who moved with his wife and sons from College Park in 1985. "The first day we looked down here, we bought a home. My wife and I had become disenchanted with where we were living. It's an old-time type of town where you know people. Everybody gets to know each other real quick. I made more friends in one year here than in 11 years in College Park."

But Cape St. Claire may be victimized by its own popularity. For example, the community has 2,200 homes and only 200 boat slips. Those numbers translate into a long waiting list for boat slips. The community association also has enlarged its clubhouse to provide a bigger hall and offices.

There also are youth sailing programs. And youngsters don't have to provide sailboats; the Cape St. Claire Yacht Club has them.

"The program gives kids who don't own boats the opportunity to learn sailing skills," says Ms. Derby, a yacht club member.

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