Town hopes to grow gracefully

March 06, 1995|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,Sun Staff Writer

For years, decoy collectors, recreational boaters and curiosity-shop browsers have found a haven in Havre de Grace, Harford County's little city by the bay.

Here, where the Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake Bay, day-trippers can park their cars and stroll the town end to end. When they tire of downtown antiques stores, impressive Victorian mansions and restaurants, they can head to the town's southern tip and take in serene vistas of the bay or the river.

But even as residents and city officials look to capitalize on the town's quaintness, they must decide how to handle growth.

"We're at this kind of juncture where we have to make this decision," Mayor Gunther Hirsch said.

Can the city balance large-scale projects on its outskirts -- a 40,000-seat automobile racetrack is proposed for just outside the city -- with the small-scale charm that attracts visitors? Or will development someday overwhelm the qualities residents hold dear?

The town's population is rising. After growing by fewer than 200 people between 1980 and 1990, it rose by nearly 1,500 from 8,952 in 1990 to 10,400 last year -- an increase of 16 percent, according to city officials.

The new residents are moving into developments around town. Pastel condominiums and three-story townhouses have sprung up at the end of lanes that used to dead-end at the T Susquehanna.

They're selling for anywhere from $89,000 for a condominium to almost $300,000 for a townhouse; all have a dock instead of a back yard. On the outskirts of town, single-family houses and townhouses fill a hillside that was farmland only five years ago. The average cost of a single-family house with a bay view: $150,000; townhouses sell for less than $90,000. When completed, the latest development will have 300 detached houses and almost 250 townhouses and condominiums.

Such developments have been turning areas closer to the Baltimore Beltway into anonymous edge cities for years. But Havre de Grace, 25 miles outside the Beltway and 15 miles from the Bel Air-boom area, is still detached enough from suburban sprawl to retain a small-town heart.

"It's one of the few places in Maryland on the waterfront that's an organic town" -- not a development, Dr. Hirsch said. "It's not one of those newer towns where you always have to jump in your car to go from A to B. In this town you can still walk."

And some who come to stroll like it so much they want to stay.

"People come in to town, not knowing what's here and say, 'God, I love this town. What are house prices here?'" said Shirley Stalder, a Century 21 Realtor. She said property values have risen about 25 percent in five years as avid boaters, families wanting to escape the city and couples juggling far-flung commutes discover Havre de Grace.

For Toun Oluwole and her husband, Ladi, price was the determining factor when they came to Havre de Grace last year. They moved with their three children to a four-bedroom house in Grace Harbour, the sprawling development on the hill above town.

"We were looking for something very nice and not too expensive," said Mrs. Oluwole, a registered nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She said prices in Havre de Grace were about $30,000 less than in Bel Air, and even more affordable than in North Carolina, where they used to live.

Mrs. Oluwole is happy in Havre de Grace. "I love it," she said. "It is very nice. The waterside and everything -- very peaceful."

But the proposed motor sports park could disrupt that peace, opponents of the project say.

D. Richard Rothman, president of Timonium-based Suburban Homes, thinks a 550-acre site off U.S. 40 is the perfect spot for a racetrack that would draw as many as 40,000 fans per event from the mid-Atlantic region. The city must decide whether to annex the land and provide the zoning needed for the track.

"Havre de Grace is basically midway between Baltimore and Philadelphia," he said. "It's in the middle of everything."

Built on the former Blenheim Farm, the park would feature vintage, Indianapolis-style and stock car races, and concerts and festivals.

Those aren't the kinds of activities Havre de Grace should be known for, said Ruth Hendricksen, co-chairwoman of Citizens Against Racetrack.

"It's just going to change the whole nature of the town," she said. Noise and traffic on race days would be a nuisance to residents and could drive away tourists looking for "the quiet day at the bay," she said.

But such concerns are "imaginary," according to Mr. Rothman. He said traffic on the 17 days of racing would be less than the average flow to Aberdeen Proving Ground, the military base about five miles south of the city, where about 14,000 people work. Mr. Rothman said races and other attractions at the park would funnel patrons to the city's downtown shops and restaurants.

It wouldn't be the first time that racing fans have flocked to the city.

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