Small Vienna seeks a fit with Smart Growth

On The Bay

Town: The Eastern Shore community has played by the rules, but residents see their future threatened by sprawl.

May 21, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

VIENNA -- IT'S A grand view from Mayor Russ Brinsfield's home on Water Street in this old Dorchester County farming and fishing village.

The breeze-ruffled Nanticoke River gleams in the spring sun, and looking east across the tidal river to the Wicomico County shore, marsh and forest stretch for miles upstream and down.

It's a good place to live, agree the people Brinsfield has asked here to discuss the future of Vienna. It's a 15-minute drive from jobs in Salisbury and Cambridge, 45 minutes from the beach, an hour and a half from Annapolis.

It's a prime jumping-off spot to some of the state's best hunting, fishing and bird-watching, and 15 minutes from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Helped by state and federal grants, the town of 300 has spent $3.5 million to upgrade and rebuild water and sewage treatment, streets, storm drains and sidewalks.

Vienna Elementary is a Maryland Blue Ribbon school, lauded for academic excellence. The town has cleaned up its waterfront and is creating a riverside park there.

It's a good place to live.

So the mayor has been wondering: How do you get people to live here?

Clare Hughes, a longtime local Realtor, says the multiple listings show two homes selling in Vienna in the past two years. About 10 are for sale, and several building lots are vacant.

Vienna's "played by the rules, done what the experts say you need to do improved our infrastructure, set design standards, cleared away dilapidated buildings," Brinsfield says.

"We feel like we've come to a threshold," says local businessman Bill Larmore. "What is it we need to do to go to the next level?"

Hughes says Vienna's doing good things.

An annual shad festival to commemorate the town's fishing heritage draws nearly 1,000 people each April. The Chicone Ruritan Club sells "planked" shad, cooked by a delicious slow-roasting technique using an open fire.

A Christmas festival of lights, with caroling in the streets, home tours and hayrides for youngsters, is becoming a tradition.

But people looking to buy mostly want new homes built on large lots carved out of farmland and forests, Hughes says. Brinsfield wonders what it will take for existing towns to compete with sprawling new development.

This is at the heart of Maryland's Smart Growth policy -- channeling growth away from open spaces, to areas where public investment in roads and sewage and schools exists.

"It's more than just preserving the rural landscape and natural resources," Brinsfield says. "I think a lot of our traditional values come from living in communities like Vienna."

Larmore thinks Vienna needs help to create incentives for people to live in town.

Brinsfield and Don Jackson of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation say sprawl development has to start paying its true cost.

Study after study across the country has shown that big residential lots and subdivisions scattered across the countryside are net losers.

They cost counties more than they add in taxes because of the services, from utilities to roads to schools to emergency responses, that eventually have to be extended.

That does not include the impact on farming and commercial forestry, or the environmental costs of displacing trees and wetlands, or the social losses of replacing communities such as Vienna with unconnected housing tracts.

Brinsfield, Larmore and the others are concerned, but they're not panicking. They want a real solution, not a quick fix.

Larmore, the businessman, is especially refreshing. He has renovated the local restaurant and tavern, the Nanticoke Inn, and owns 9.5 acres of developable land within town limits. Yet he says:

"I don't want us to be building new streets and making new housing at the expense of what already exists. We need to grow in town first."

The town has made tentative contacts with the Perdue Business School at Salisbury State University to help with marketing and economic development.

We talk about how the Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization that has made preserving Nanticoke River lands a priority, has helped promote ecotourism and environmentally sound development in other areas where it owns land.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and other groups all see the Nanticoke watershed as a conservation priority. Making Vienna grow should be in the interest of anyone who wants to preserve open space, we all figure.

Vienna, to be sure, is no Oxford or St. Michaels. A sizable power plant lies north of town. The owner, Conectiv, has landscaped extensively and donated land for the town's new sewage treatment plant.

Some of the houses are quaint, charming and historic, but no one would describe the town as such. On the other hand, prices average between $55,000 and $90,000.

It's a good place to live.

But it's up against perceptions that the "American Dream" is a new home on 3 acres. This is abetted by "agricultural conservation" zoning in Dorchester and Wicomico that makes it "way too easy to cut farmland up into lots," says Brinsfield, who with his family owns farms in the area.

The state's Smart Growth strategy addresses this somewhat, denying state funding that facilitates sprawl. But unless the counties get smarter too, it's going to be hard for Vienna.

And you can multiply Vienna by hundreds of older towns and cities across the Chesapeake region.

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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