Land sale worries environmentalists

Long-delayed project on Shore can proceed

September 01, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

BERLIN -- Worcester County environmentalists say the latest turn in the 10-year saga of the Riddle Farm is like deja vu all over again. The former horse farm, which covers nearly 1,000 acres, includes the largest swath of undisturbed forest remaining in the densely developed outskirts of Ocean City.

The sale this month of the ecologically sensitive peninsula has rekindled opposition to long-standing plans for a 650-home community, with its own water and sewage treatment plants, an 18-hole golf course and an inland marina.

The land, bordered by two shallow creeks -- Turville and Herring -- drains into the Isle of Wight Bay.

Attention to the proposed development comes during a high-profile campaign to protect Maryland's coastal bays and just as Worcester County begins a yearlong revision of its comprehensive development plan, the document that has steered residential and business growth to the county's northeast corner.

For Goodwin H. Taylor Jr., the Northern Virginia developer who has held an option on the property for more than a decade, his $4 million purchase could signal the start of a project that won the last of its required permits from environmental officials in 1994 and has been stalled ever since.

The arguments have changed little in the years since Taylor staked a claim to the farm where legendary thoroughbred Man O' War once trained.

Taylor's lawyer, Robert Douglas of Baltimore, says it's too late to change the rules of the game and says the company has already bent over backward to accommodate early complaints. A number of compromises, he says, helped smooth the way in acquiring local zoning approval and necessary permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment, among others.

"The project was reworked in 1993 to include input from the environmental community," says Douglas. "We have preserved a 100-acre forest canopy for migratory birds. There is not one waterfront lot within 50 to 100 feet of the water along three-plus miles of shoreline.

"The bottom line is the partnership has done everything required by the law. You're never going to please everybody."

Example of sprawl

But opponents insist the plan is a classic example of sprawl development that could be an ecological disaster for interior wetland areas that act as natural filters for the two vulnerable creeks and other nearby coastal waters.

"We're not a bunch of tree-huggers opposed to all development, and we recognize that, legally, this is a done deal if they want it," says Ron Cascio, a homebuilder who helped found Friends of Turville and Herring Creeks in 1993. "This is a treasure so close to Ocean City. We think there's a better way to develop it."

As they have for years, Cascio and other opponents say the site contains 300 to 500 acres of fragile nontidal wetlands, not merely the dozen identified by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1988 -- a determination upon which subsequent approvals by state agencies were based.

A square mile of land

The site, which totals about one square mile, is adjacent to Bally's at Ocean Downs harness racing track and sits across U.S. 50 from a new Wal-Mart store that was bitterly opposed by Worcester slow-growth advocates.

With growth continuing at a brisk pace along the St. Martin River and in nearby Ocean Pines, where the year-round population of 6,000 soars to 12,000 in the summer, environmentalists argue that the Riddle farm could be better preserved with a traditional neighborhood development similar to highly praised projects such as Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands in Montgomery County.

Like most such projects, housing and small businesses could be clustered in a village setting, preserving more wetlands areas, yet allowing the developer to build more houses, they say.

"We recognize that this was designated as a growth area, but the watershed has already taken too much," Cascio says. "It's like a patient losing a lung and a kidney; the nontidal wetlands produce oxygen and filter the water.

"But it looks like all we can do now is plead."

`Logical for development'

Taylor and his partners, two Long Island, N.Y., investors who provided $3.5 million to complete the land deal, are unlikely to make major changes that would require them to reapply for new zoning, as well as permits from various state and federal agencies that have toughened standards.

"This is not like wiping a slate clean and starting over," Douglas says.

"The fact is that tract was zoned for residential development and it's a logical place for development to occur."

Opponents hold out little hope of making substantive changes to the Riddle Farm project, but some are optimistic that a recently appointed 22-member steering committee for Worcester 2000 will be successful in developing a new comprehensive to handle future growth.

"This has been in the wind a long time," says Ilia Fehrer, a county planning commission member who is chairman of the Worcester Environmental Trust.

"I'd like to see it remain open space, but unfortunately, it seems to be going the other way.

"I think this shows that when our current master plan was written, people were just not as aware how much development can affect our quality of life."

Pub Date: 9/01/99

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