To expand or not? Tiny town, big flap St. Michaels: Supporters of a proposed 350-dwelling development say it would be the best way to manage growth. Opponents say it would destroy the historic village's charm.

April 19, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

ST. MICHAELS -- A land-annexation proposal that would dramatically increase the population of this tiny, historic fishing village has set off one of the nastiest local skirmishes since the town fought the British during the War of 1812.

"This is probably the biggest thing that has happened to St. Michaels since the British bombed it," said Dan Cowee, the Talbot County planning officer, referring to the shelling of the town by English warships nearly two centuries ago.

At issue is the future of St. Michaels, the self-described "Jewel of the Eastern Shore," which has a population of about 1,300 and attracts 100,000 or so other people every year.

A local landowner's request that the town annex 109 acres on its eastern boundary on which 350 homes and some commercial buildings would be built has stirred up such a controversy that the landowner has temporarily withdrawn the plan so that he can prepare it for expected legal action by the opposition.

Supporters of the proposal say it is the best way to manage inevitable growth. Opponents say it would destroy a unique charm and cachet that have been 300 years in the making.

Local opposition to growth isn't new -- two requests for zoning changes for land near St. Michaels have been opposed and denied in the past year. But neither proposal provoked the reaction this one has, and local officials have been taken aback by it.

Supporters, including town and county officials, say the land in question, known locally as Hatton's Garden Farm, has been targeted for growth since the mid-1980s. Annexation, they say, would give St. Michaels, rather than the county, control of the development, density and design of the property.

But when owner Clint Wadsworth took the first step toward developing the property on San Domingo Creek -- asking the St. Michaels Planning Commission to review how the land could be zoned if annexed -- the controversy erupted.

The ensuing public debate has spilled out of living rooms and meeting halls into the tony shops and trendy restaurants that line the town's main thoroughfare. Posters opposing the development have appeared in store windows. Buttons with similar sentiments are turning up on lapels. Petitions opposing the plan are in wide circulation, picking up hundreds of signatures. Letters to the editor appear almost daily in the local newspaper.

From the florist shop at one end of Talbot Street to the ice cream store at the other, the Hatton's Garden development is Topic A -- and neither side is giving up.

"It's very important that every 'i' gets dotted and every 't' gets crossed. We know we're going to get legally challenged," Wadsworth said.

TC The St. Michaels Preservation Coalition, which opposes the plan, is warning in a newspaper ad that "the battle to save St. Michaels has just begun."

Local planning officials say such opposition misses the point.

"The major thing to keep in mind here is that Mr. Wadsworth, as the owner of the property, can develop it," said Nancy Bird, who heads the Planning Commission. "It doesn't have to get annexed by the town for that to happen." "That property was designated for growth," Cowee said. "How it is to grow, that is the question. It's very important to tie down some sort of a master plan in this project."

That, said Wadsworth, is what he is trying to do.

He turned down one offer for the property, he said, because he didn't think the developer shared his concern for growth compatible with preserving St. Michaels. His proposal, for townhouses and single-family residences, calls for a lower density than is permitted under current county zoning -- 3.5 homes per acre compared with 4 per acre -- and he said he wants a development that would enhance the town.

"The time is right to plan it for the next 20 to 25 years," said Wadsworth, who grew up on Hatton's Garden Farm and lives in nearby Royal Oak. "What I've been concerned about is getting these controls set even before we start talking to developers, so we have controls."

Careful management of the development could bring benefits to the town, said Wadsworth, who envisions a public park on the property and houses that would enhance, not damage, St. Michaels' ambience.

Opponents see it differently. "It's sickening," said Deborah Bridges, owner of Swan Cove Flowers, Antiques and Collectibles, a St. Michaels shop. ""It all boils down to pure greed. It's going to kill this town."

"The town historically had .05 percent growth -- it was almost like,'Die, move out and we'll bring in someone to replace you,'" said Robert E. Hofmaster, a town resident who is leading the St. Michaels Preservation Coalition.

"There are two main reasons St. Michaels might want to annex that land," Bird said. "We can control how it is developed -- if we don't annex it, development will be controlled by the county. And it would generate additional property taxes, which the town needs."

St. Michaels probably would benefit from the development of Hatton's Garden, said David M. Smith, a town commissioner and town treasurer. It would bring growth the town needs, along with tax revenues, he said.

Pub Date: 4/19/97

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