A Rouse failure, an island's gain Saved: Wye Island remains an environmental crown jewel after James Rouse was thwarted in his bid for its limited development.

On the Bay

April 12, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

AT HIS DEATH this week, James W. Rouse, the visionary developer, was justly remembered for Columbia, Mondawmin, Harborplace -- all the places he successfully built or revitalized.

It is one of his failures, however, a project he was not allowed to do, that I love most.

At the same time, some 25 years since Rouse lost the battle of Wye Island, I still have mixed feelings about whether the developer's defeat was anyone's win.

The island, 2,800 acres of tall old forest, farm fields, hedgerows and deep-water coves incised on a 40-mile shoreline, remains today the jewel of the Eastern Shore that it was in the early 1970s, when Jim Rouse unveiled his plans for it to a skeptical board of Queen Anne's County commissioners.

The commissioners were wary of being overwhelmed by the development boom that had been gathering force since the Bay Bridge in 1952 linked them to the western shore.

Rouse was fresh off the success of Columbia, a revolutionary development in Howard County that created actual communities with town centers as opposed to sterile, checkerboard bedroom suburbs.

Wye Island was to be a smaller-scale version of Columbia, a model for the Shore; a way to accommodate inevitable growth and preserve a landscape reminiscent of the village of Easton, surrounded by orchards and hayfields, where Rouse grew up in the 1920s.

The county's 5-acre lot zoning for Wye Island, considered progressive at the time, would in fact have led to a total fragmentation of the island's natural landscape, and a shoreline chockablock with private docks, and mostly cleared down to the waterline to provide views of the lovely Wye River.

Rouse's concept would have tightly clustered 706 units, including apartments, duplexes and a general store, around a couple of coves, allowing only a communal town dock.

Another 184 "estate" homes would have been sprinkled throughout some 2,000 acres. He did, after all, need to make a profit.

No one would have been allowed to remove natural vegetation within 200 feet of the water (twice as protective as Maryland's modern Critical Area law). Only about 12 per cent of the island would have been used for development.

Rouse's vision was too adventurous for Queen Anne's County. Stymied at every turn, the developer pulled out.

To author Boyd Gibbons, whose 1977 book, "Wye Island" (Johns Hopkins Press) ably chronicles the whole issue, Rouse lamented the "blind selfishness" that rejects a good planned development, while accepting the gradual erosion of its open space by bad, unplanned development.

A few years later, urged by wealthy landowners in the region around Wye Island, the state purchased it for $5.3 million.

Open to the public, but little advertised and never developed as a park, the island today is a haven for sailboaters who love its wooded coves as anchorages; it is also a place one can walk the woods and shorelines for miles, watching eagles and swans, encountering few other people, even on weekends.

One can look at how Queen Anne's County subsequently developed and say, in Rouse's behalf, "I told you so." It has been characterized by mediocrity, ugly commercial strip development and dramatic loss of forest and farmland to suburban sprawl.

On the other hand, so has most of the rest of Maryland, including Howard County, despite the example of Columbia.

Rouse and Maryland's environmental community -- though both decried the sprawl that is degrading the state -- never really connected with one another.

I suspect he saw the environmentalists during the 1970s and 1980s as simply too much opposed to development, while he was a champion of "good development, not nondevelopment."

But he perhaps did not realize fully the futility of trying to lead by example while virtually all the rest of the land around his projects remained a target for bad development.

Only in recent years has there been, at least in concept, a coming together of these ideas about controlling sprawl.

Environmentalists are recognizing they must actively support developers who do excellent models of livable, workable communities that take up minimal amounts of open space.

At the same time, they, with developers' help, must push government to do a far better job of discouraging development on most forest and farmland.

One without the other won't cut it.

No doubt Rouse would have created something extraordinary on Wye Island; also it would likely have generated development outside his boundaries that was a blight on the countryside.

Gibbons in his book is critical that Wye Island in its preserved status will never be used by much of the public.

I think that's true only in the short term, and I fully expect, as Maryland grows in the next century from 5 million to 10 million residents, the island will become a crown jewel in something like a Chesapeake Bay National Park.

So for these reasons, and for my own selfish enjoyment of its solitude, I am glad for Rouse's loss; yet I know the preservation of the island is not simply a victory.

We must get better, and quickly, at including both people and nature in virtually every development we do in Maryland -- cultivate the middle ground, the gap between the either-or of preservation or paving over.

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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