Fleeing a village's growth pains

Sprawl: Catherine Classen has warily been marking signs of change in Shady Side. Now, she's decided, it's time to go.

April 16, 1999|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

Like a doting mother who measures her child's growth spurts with faded pencil marks on the kitchen door frame, Catherine Classen can point to the specific, watershed moments that transformed her tiny community into a place she no longer recognizes.

"Let me roll back the film in my mind," she says, trailing off, rewinding more than 30 years' worth of memories.

There was the year local schools stopped letting farm kids out to help with seasonal tobacco planting and harvesting.

The closing of the old waterfront hotel.

The summer the general store stopped being a true general store, no longer selling cans of varnish and buckets of nails and painters' dungarees.

The first subdivision on the edge of the southern Anne Arundel town.

The gas stations where you had to pay before pumping.

And finally, about five years ago, the first stoplight.

"You should have heard the buzz over that dumb light," Classen says. "That was the beginning of the end."

Like other people in rapidly developing counties, Classen bemoans big development in Anne Arundel County and what it has wrought in quiet places like Shady Side. But unlike most of the folks who complain -- yet stick around anyway -- Classen is pulling up roots: She's heading south, leaving before the strip malls get closer.

"In life, we have three options," she says, sounding both resigned and a little bitter. "We can accept the change. We can fight the change. Or we can find a place that suits better."

Last week, sitting on the rambling front porch of her old farmhouse, the organic farmer took off her straw hat, wiped her dirty hands on her even dirtier jeans, and resigned herself to the inevitable.

"There's no turning back," she says. "It's time for me to go."

People around Shady Side talk about seeing the writing on the wall when it comes to development.

Situated on a wooded peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake Bay, the town has become hot real estate for people looking for a reasonable commute to Baltimore, Annapolis or Washington.

One local real estate agent, Norma Courtois, says annual home sales have more than doubled in the past decade.

Sometimes, Courtois says, a house doesn't even stay on the market for a day. "It's a brisk market, to say the least."

Shady Side is growing so fast that no one knows its population. In the '60s, the town had about 1,500 year-round residents. In the '80s, the number jumped to more than 4,000.

Now, depending on where you draw the town's boundaries -- at the old village edge or past the new subdivisions -- Shady Side nears the 7,000 mark.

Predictably, new problems have followed new residents.

Entering Shady Side, the first thing motorists see are the white roadside crosses every few hundred yards. The increased traffic on the only thoroughfare leading in and out of town has led to a rash of accidents, and statistics show that someone dies on Shady Side Road nearly every 130 days.

The second thing visitors spot is a giant, block-lettered sign that reads, "Drugs will not be tolerated in our community." They might not be tolerated, but they are certainly there. One street in Shady Side -- Scott Town Road -- has a thriving drug market. County police have cracked down in recent years, and a local pastor spends one night a week patrolling the area, ordering dealers to shape up, get religion or get out of town.

The anti-development placards are the third telltale sign of the times on the trip into Shady Side: "Bigger is not better."

The fourth view driving into town sums it up: the multimillion-dollar subdivision West River Estates directly across the road from a tobacco farm and a horse ranch.

The southern Anne Arundel County town is hardly unique. Across the country, little towns are increasingly accessible to big cities, thanks to freeways and beltways and expressways. "Urban sprawl" has become the buzzword of the '90s.

The population of Mesquite, Nev., outside Las Vegas, is growing at more than 30 percent a year. The town -- which had one paved road seven years ago -- now has about 13,000 residents. Southold, N.Y., at the eastern tip of Long Island, is trying to ward off New York City sprawl by placing thousands of acres of farmland into a preservation program, blocking the development of about 2,800 new homes.

"I don't know all the details of this Shady Side place," said Tom Guterbock, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia who studies how rapid growth affects communities. "But I can tell you that it isn't alone in its issues and concerns."

Classen isn't simply worried that Shady Side Road has a rush hour, or that her farm has a view of two new homes, or that she doesn't know half her neighbors by their first names anymore.

She is more worried about the things Shady Side seems to have lost.

"People don't act as neighborly anymore," she says. "And I'm part of that problem, I'll admit. So many of us have pulled back. We don't deliver the pot of soup anymore or stop over unannounced. The atmosphere has just changed."

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