Mega-projects, mega-efforts Risks: Sometimes developers' visions of waterfront paradise succeed, and sometimes they don't. But the allure keeps them trying

July 22, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

The modern shore neighborhood is mass-produced and built big to pack in lots of people. It's pretty and it's perfectly planned.

There's just one problem: It isn't always popular.

The Southern Maryland coast is marked by developers' grand ambitions: huge resort-style communities languishing half-built while massive new developments go up nearby.

The state wants these mega-projects. When it imposed tough restrictions on waterfront building 12 years ago, it encouraged large, carefully designed developments as an alternative to suburban sprawl. The goal: Pack hundreds of people into planned communities on the shoreline, sparing vast stretches of precious land from scattershot development.

But in Calvert, St. Mary's and Charles counties, this solution has been far from disaster-proof. Some developments were too large and remote to sustain themselves. Others stirred fierce opposition from local groups. Still more stagnated as homebuyers refused to move to a grid of streets in a neighborhood created from a corporate boardroom. Although set beautiful landscapes, the communities seemed more pre-fab than all-natural.

Mega-projects have their allure -- the profits can be great, the residents happy and the results environmentally sound. So year after year, developers try to make their visions of waterfront paradise come true.

NB Sometimes they win. Sometimes they lose. But always, they try.

Swan Point: mostly empty

It's 8 p.m. at Swan Point. Time for a hoedown.

"Ya'll gotta have some hip movement," shouts Debby Last, a country western dance instructor, as she pumps and grinds on a springtime Friday night before a crowd of eager residents. "Swivel, swivel, swivel, clap. You got it!"

Folks at this tony community on the Potomac River are herded into a banquet room, decorated with silver stirrups and extra-large steer horns, to say "Howdy, neighbor" for $18.95. Locals bond by bales of hay. A klatch of professionals in chambray chitchats over long-neck beers. A man with a belly full of barbecue does a slow hustle. A matron in cowboy boots works it on the dance floor. A businessman shouts, "It's party time!" and his friend hoots, "Yahoo!"

This warm moment comes courtesy of U.S. Steel. Its real estate division, USX Realty, painstakingly engineered the multimillion-dollar project in Charles County. The aim of events such as the country line dancing night, organized by the Swan Point promotion staff, is to create a neighborhood feeling in a place with little shared history.

But despite the friendly atmosphere and the big bucks behind it, Swan Point has been mostly empty since it was started two decades ago. Only 122 homes have been built. There is room for 1,500.

"Swan Point just didn't catch fire," says Carl Baldus, who owns Baldus Real Estate in LaPlata and has watched coastal communities come and go during his 65 years in the county. "It's got a beautiful golf course and a clubhouse and a couple of tennis courts and a large swimming pool. But it never seemed to hit the home run."

Places like Swan Point are supposed to be the modern solution to shoreline growth because they sit on the water but are environmentally sound. Swan Point is designed with wetlands protections and coastal buffers. Nearly half of its 900 acres are non-buildable open space for recreation, preservation and landscaping.

USX pitches the community as a place where families, commuters, retirees and others can settle and still feel like every day is a vacation. But some residents say it is too far from Washington to commute -- the trip usually takes 1 1/2 hours. New businesses, restaurants and shops are not coming either: Charles County officials say they want to steer roads, water and sewer services farther north to the growing hub of Waldorf.

Others complain that it isn't remote enough to be an escape. The homes are stacked closely together and seem too suburban for folks looking for privacy and solitude.

Last year, Swan Point reached its all-time development high with the addition of 20 houses. But just as many have For Sale signs out front -- and many more empty lots are on the market. Realtors say USX won't allow their signs on those lots because it would make the community look desperate.

Swan Point marketing manager Mary A. Pocsatko says the development boom is coming. She blames the community's slow growth on a sluggish real estate market and wetlands rules that stalled building. Still, more than 420 lots have been sold over the years, and Pocsatko predicts Swan Point will thrive as Southern Maryland's population climbs.

"People who are coming down the road now are thinking, 'We might be ahead of our times,' " she says. "But plenty of people want to get out of the hubbub. People are looking for quality of life."

Nevertheless, residents like Jim Dement, 48, are nervous.

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