The changing face of Md. Waterfront: A 1984 state law to prevent shoreline crowding isn't able to keep out damaging development in southern counties

July 21, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

The American Dream rolled off a truck at Wicomico Shores.

It was then screwed together into a spot by the water. The people from American Dreams Inc., a modular home company, wasted no time in assembling the factory-built contemporary for Grant and Sandy Williams and their two golden-haired daughters.

"What more could we want?" asked Sandy, 33, as she took in her sparkling new surroundings on the Wicomico River in St. Mary's County. "It's just beautiful."

Multiply this sunny young family by several thousand. Move them all from the suburbs to the shore. What you get is the future of Southern Maryland's waterfront.

When the state passed a tough law in 1984 to prevent crowding on the shoreline, many people believed one of Maryland's most precious natural resources would stay untouched. But despite the law's intentions, the Southern Maryland coast is developing lot by lot, every day.

Some of the growth is coming as the law intended: clustered communities that spare long stretches of coast. But elsewhere the development is damaging and chaotic, overtaking the coast and changing the character of the land.

Entrepreneurs are building mega-sized housing projects, newcomers are gentrifying the region's oldest fishing villages and -- in the most aggressive campaign of all -- developers are seizing a loophole in the law and placing houses on so-called grandfathered lots.

Grandfathered lots, often small and fragile pieces of land, are exempt from the state's toughest shoreline protections because they were legally created before the law. The state is powerless to prevent building on most of this private property, even if the development harms delicate shoreline habitat. To be sure, future building will be much less extensive and better controlled than it would have been without the law. But the development of grandfathered lots rips up wild shoreline at least as often as building restrictions protect this land.

What scares some people is that nobody -- not any federal, state or county official -- knows how many grandfathered lots exist.

"There are a ton of these lots," says Sue Veith, who oversees shoreline development for the St. Mary's Planning and Zoning Department. "There are far more of these itty- bitty lots out there than parcels that meet the requirements of the law."

The development of those lots is irreversibly damaging the shoreline, says Ren Serey, head of the Critical Area Commission, the state's watchdog for coastal development. "The face of Southern Maryland is going to change," he says. "All these grandfathered lots are one day going to be built. The resource is going to suffer."

And folks like the Williamses will be moving in.

Thousands of lots

"We are right on the water," declares Sandy Williams as her daughter, Amanda, dances around the living room in a Cinderella costume. "And we didn't even have to be millionaires to afford this spot."

Grant Williams, 36, a manager at a Chevrolet truck dealership, spent months shopping for grandfathered lots all over Southern Maryland before deciding on western St. Mary's County. Less than an acre on the Wicomico River, it went for only $95,000. To build the same three-story house under today's rules, the family would need 20 times as much land.

The Wicomico Shores story is a familiar one in St. Mary's -- where roughly 24 "hot spots" with thousands of grandfathered lots sit on the shoreline waiting to be built. Wicomico Shores alone has 933 lots. If it were subdivided today, only 100 would be allowed.

The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Law meant to discourage this kind of frenetic development, where homes are splayed across precious land indiscriminately. But the law could not prevent development of grandfathered lots; denying landowners the right to build on legally recorded lots is unconstitutional.

Southern Maryland's 700 miles of shoreline are disparate, a twisting expanse of land across three counties -- from the cliffs of Calvert to the seaside summer cottages along St. Mary's coast to the rural waterfront farms of Charles. Vast stretches of pristine shoreline still sit along this coast. But change is coming.

The region -- Calvert, St. Mary's and Charles counties -- is the fastest growing in the state. At nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station, 5,000 jobs will be added in the next two years.

Wicomico Shores is booming. Development took off two years ago, when the county began installing sewer lines. Newly finished black asphalt streets roll along the waterfront. Dirt roads and stretches of overgrown lots, remnants of bankruptcies over the past 20 years, are disappearing.

Something else is arriving in their place: suburbia.

The middle-class folks moving to Wicomico Shores and coastal communities like it are accustomed to the life of a bedroom community. Sandy Williams, a longtime suburbanite, wants a shopping mall. She wants young families to move in so her kids have playmates. She wants a grocery store nearby.

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