Shore booming - or languishing

Counties: Figures put Worcester, Cecil and Queen Anne's at the top of the growth chart, while others are trying to find their place.

Census 2000 The Maryland Count

March 23, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE - Dorchester County, among Maryland's poorest areas, grew at an anemic pace over the past decade, boosting its population by 438. A short drive away, Worcester County, with its oceanfront resorts, boomed, nearly leading the state in growth.

The differences between those two counties, as measured by Census 2000, illustrates the vital role of geography on the Eastern Shore.

In Worcester and other fast-growing areas - such as Queen Anne's and Cecil counties, which are within commuting distance of Washington and Annapolis - the numbers illustrate a situation more familiar to suburbanites on the other side of Chesapeake Bay: increased battles over zoning and development.

In rural counties such as Dorchester and Somerset, officials are welcoming increased tourism and a predicted wave of well-heeled baby boomer retirees who they think will boost languishing local economies.

Officials and business leaders in Dorchester, the state's largest county in area, are playing down the 1.4 percent growth rate in the 1990s. The next 10 years, they say, will count the most.

With an economy crippled by decades of decline in the canning and seafood industries, residents are embracing a $200 million Hyatt resort hotel under construction along the Choptank River in Cambridge. They think it will spur unprecedented growth.`The Hyatt will be fabulous in terms of drawing people here," says County Commissioner Thomas A. Flowers. "Right now, there's even a question of whether we have enough people to provide workers for this or other companies."

Thirty miles up U.S. 50, hundreds of people in Queen Anne's County crammed into a high school auditorium last month to hear about a proposed 1,350-home community. If approved, opponents say, it will clear a path for other large-scale developments that could add 4,000 to 5,000 homes on Kent Island, the gateway to the Eastern Shore.

The `new suburban county'

Classified by state planners as a "new suburban county," like Howard, Harford and Carroll, Queen Anne's continued a 30-year pattern of population growth, the latest census shows. Its population totaled 40,563.

But despite rapid development on Kent Island, where alarmed residents have formed groups such as the Kent Island Defense League, the county's growth rate has slowed from two previous decades, when the population jumped by more than 15,000 from 1970 to 1990.`There's no magic way to quantify it and say 'this much is too much,'" says Rick Moser, a leader in the league. "The league is not anti-growth, but our concern is that we don't degrade our environment or destroy our community."

John Wilson, a developer who owns Chesapeake Bay Beach Club near the Bay Bridge, is proposing a 750-unit village on the island. With an annual average of about 400 building permits issued in recent years, Queen Anne's is more than able to handle the current growth, Wilson says.

"I don't see any boom here at all," he says. "The entire Eastern Shore is always going to have moderate growth. The Shore will grow only as fast as the roads, water and sewer, schools and other services will allow. There's a limit."

The Upper Shore's other growth center is Cecil County, where the population grew to 85,951, a 20.5 percent increase that mirrors the pattern from 1980 to 1990. In the past 10 years, the county's school-age population grew by more than 25 percent, evidence that Cecil is attracting families with young children, says planning chief Eric Sennstrom.

Moving in from urban areas

"People are moving here from Baltimore or Harford counties, and from New Castle County, Del.," Sennstrom says. "A study a couple years ago showed the average price of a home here was $124,000, compared to the $160s in Harford and the $170s in New Castle. That's what's drawing people."

The anomaly in the region is Kent County. Still Maryland's least populous at 19,197 people, Kent has been largely unaffected by its neighbors' growth. Many county residents are content to hold on to Kent's rural traditions, says native Art Willis, who owns one of Rock Hall's largest marinas.

"There's still a prevailing attitude of that original Eastern Shore heritage. We like our quiet," Willis says. "We keep thinking we're on the precipice of some big development, but it doesn't happen. There's strong sentiment here to remain the same."

Neighboring Caroline County has maintained its agricultural character, registering a modest 10.1 percent growth. With limited water and sewer service in Caroline's small towns, county officials say large-scale development is unlikely.

But Caroline is becoming more attractive to commuters who can buy more house for the money than they can in Queen Anne's or in Talbot County. Planning director Elizabeth Krempasky says many are middle-aged workers who are thinking ahead to retirement.

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