Shore sees rising rate of growth

Some residents view large developments as threat to lifestyle

No longer insulated

Building is spurred by road projects, demographic shifts

April 04, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- Long insulated from the fast pace and breakneck growth that have come to define urban life for their neighbors across the bay, residents and public officials on Maryland's Eastern Shore are facing increasing development pressures that many say threaten the region's rural and small-town character.

Half a dozen large-scale projects now being planned or under review in the mid- and upper-Shore counties of Kent, Queen Anne's, Talbot and Dorchester have sparked concern among homeowners and prompted contentious debate about land use, traffic, the environment and the overriding issue of how much growth is enough, how much is inevitable and how it can best be managed.

"I think the Eastern Shore is about to explode, and we're going to pretty quickly find out whether the state is serious about Smart Growth," said environmentalist Ned Gerber, director of the nonprofit Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage.

In St. Michaels, slow-growth advocates have plastered SOS (Save Our St. Michaels) bumper stickers in windows of the trendy shops, restaurants and galleries that lure thousands of tourists each year. Town officials are considering a moratorium on development, and members of the Talbot County Council have talked recently of "putting on the brakes."

Developers, real estate brokers and local government leaders say three factors -- highway improvements that have made commuting easier, state Smart Growth rules that steer development toward existing town services and a burgeoning group of baby boomers buying second homes and looking ahead to retirement -- will mean more growth, not less.

"I see this as inevitable," said Dr. Memo Diriker, who heads the Enterprise Development Group, an economic advisory and research team at Salisbury State University's Perdue School of Business.

"The Eastern Shore cannot escape development," Diriker said. "Some projects that look good on paper can have tremendous impact on small communities. But the market pressure is so strong, the answer is not to fight but to collaborate and manage growth."

More typical is the reaction in St. Michaels, where residents mounted a well-organized, well-financed opposition to a proposed $100 million traditional neighborhood development of 375 homes. Designed by nationally acclaimed architects, the project would have nearly doubled the population of the waterfront town of 1,300. The Washington developers are seeking approval of a scaled-back plan for 150 townhouses and single-family homes, a huge project in a town of about 650 houses.

The design by architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk would have been similar to the Kentlands community in suburban Washington. Ron Noble, a member of the town planning commission that rejected the design, said the town needs at least a temporary halt to growth.

"I'm not saying we ought to lock the bridge -- I moved here five years ago myself -- but we need time to assess our needs, to control positive growth," Noble said. "Everything is on a smaller scale here. I think most people in town support the idea."

On Kent Island, environmentalists are casting a wary eye on a preliminary proposal for a 550-acre golf course retirement community that could total 1,500 homes in the next 10 to 20 years.

Officials with Columbia-based Domain Co. refuse to comment on their project, but county planners say they have had informal meetings with the company, which has contracts to purchase more than 500 acres for an "age-restricted" golf community.

The proposal comes as no surprise to Gerber, who has waged a number of court battles with Kent Island developers in recent years. Queen Anne's County will only attract more development interest, he said.

"Most environmentalists already see the [Chesapeake Bay] Critical Areas law as a rudderless ship. I don't see any slowdown in development," Gerber said.

Queen Anne's officials say the development would fit the county's comprehensive plan, which steers most growth to the U.S. 50 corridor, where water and sewer service is available.

"I think the big things on the Shore are just starting to happen," said attorney Joe Stevens, a former county planner who represents the Domain group. "I think we'll see more of these planned developments. The developers are focusing on the growth areas, the areas that the state and local governments have designated to receive it."

Dorchester County business and community leaders are lauding a proposed $140 million Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort they hope will be the economic catalyst to revive Cambridge. But in rural Kent County, officials have kept a similar proposal for a hotel and golf course resort near Rock Hall at arm's length for nearly a year.

On a pristine 675-acre property just across Swan Creek from the commercial fishing and yachting town of Rock Hall, developer Timothy E. Wyman plans what he describes as a "world-class resort" that would include a golf course, a 250-room hotel, a 25,000-square-foot conference center and up to 225 vacation suites.

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