Battle lines by the bay

Property: Homeowners stake their claims along an eroding beachfront, upsetting longtime residents.

August 19, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

TOLCHESTER -- When she was growing up, Trisha Sawicki played in the Chesapeake Bay just a short stroll from the summer cottage that her grandfather built in this once-popular bayfront resort.

"I used to be able to walk out my door and down the lane and have a beautiful beach to swim on," said Sawicki, 45, who moved here seven years ago. "But now I don't have that."

Nature -- and the desire of waterfront property owners to keep the Chesapeake at bay -- have combined to wipe out most of the beach that once graced Tolchester Estates, a 71-year-old community built atop a bluff overlooking the shoreline.

Where once there was a broad, sandy strip at the edge of the water, now are layers of boulders and wooden bulkheads keeping the 50-foot bluff -- and the homes atop it -- from tumbling into the bay in storm-caused erosion.

Some residents are feuding over access to the remaining scraps of beach. Two relatively recent purchasers of summer homes have angered some longtime residents by filing deeds claiming sole ownership of the shoreline in front of their homes and of the lanes that run past their houses to the waterfront.

The dispute has degenerated in one instance into a "Jerry Springer"-like spat between neighbors, with dueling lawsuits over who owns the contested water access, but also including allegations of shrubbery vandalism and threatening with a garden hose.

"It's just a mess, sort of a quagmire," laments Tracy Stone, co-owner of the Inn at Mitchell House, a nearby bed and breakfast. "It's an unfortunate set of circumstances where things have changed and people are angry with each other."

The dispute over dwindling beach access at Tolchester is no surprise to James G. Titus of the Environmental Protection Agency, an expert on climate change and sea-level rise. Marylanders are losing their ability to get to the bay as they barricade their waterfront against erosion, he said.

"Ultimately that shorefront is owned by all of the residents of Maryland," Titus said. But this state has done less than others, he contends, to ensure the public's continued right to access to the bay.

Tolchester Beach was once a thriving bay resort. From the late 19th century until shortly after World War II, steamers brought thousands of tourists from Baltimore to ride the "Whirl-Pool Dips" roller coaster, bathe on the sandy beach, or dance in the pavilion.

Tolchester Estates was launched in the 1920s, in hopes of cashing in on the nearby amusement park and on speculation that regular ferry service connecting Kent County with Baltimore might be instituted.

The ferry never materialized, nor did a talked-of bridge over the bay at Tolchester. The amusement park closed in 1962, seven years after the Bay Bridge crossing at Kent Island eased the drive to Ocean City. No trace of the park remains; a marina occupies the site where steamers once docked.

Bypassed by progress, Tolchester Estates languished for decades. In recent years, though, a new generation of vacation-home seekers has begun buying and renovating the old cottages.

To some longtime residents, the influx represents a threat to their way of life. Tolchester, the scene of fighting between British and American soldiers in the War of 1812, "is under attack, and this time the attack is from within," Carol Bromer of Marietta, Pa., wrote this summer in a letter to the weekly Kent County News.

Bromer, whose family has had a summer cottage here for four generations, is particularly upset by the recent actions of another Pennsylvania family, which at great expense shored up its property on the southern end of the community beach with a layer of boulders, armoring the base of the bluff against waves. Residents now must climb over this rocky revetment to reach the beach or trek around to the north end, which is still accessible by a dirt road.

"Community property is being attacked by some recent arrivals who are unable to grasp the concept of community property," Bromer wrote.

The Tolchester Community Association has waded into the fray. The group, of which Sawicki is secretary, is suing one property owner for claiming to own supposed community property and may go after the other, depending on the result of the pending case.

What's at stake, according to Sawicki, is the right of any resident of the traditionally working-class summer and retirement community to enjoy the bay -- rights that were provided for by the developer when he laid out the subdivision in the 1920s.

The people with waterfront homes "have a lot of money, and they don't want anybody coming up there," she said. "To me, if you want to save the bay, you have to have people care about it. You have to be able to go to the bay and see it to love it and want to care for it."

But others say the issue is not nearly so clear cut, that newcomers are being unfairly maligned.

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