Park benches make Oxfordians crabby

Newcomers at odds with older residents on placement near homes

September 19, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OXFORD -- A squabble over park benches placed near the elegant homes that line the banks of the Tred Avon River has turned nasty in one of the Eastern Shore's oldest and prettiest towns.

Some waterfront property owners are hopping mad about losing their privacy in what they say is a power play by Oxford's three-member commission.

But town leaders dismiss the complaints as little more than elitist whining, a case of not-in-my-back-yard sniping from nouveaux Oxfordians who have little regard for the Colonial-era port's traditions.

FOR THE RECORD - A caption in Wednesday's Maryland section incorrectly described a park bench in Oxford as one that has caused controversy in the Eastern Shore town. The bench in the photograph is not one of those in dispute. The Sun regrets the error.

Old-timers in this 318- year-old town, known for its Wednesday evening sailboat races, its seven working boatyards and its slow pace, say the debate has sharpened differences in the community of 771.

About 30 percent of the houses are owned by weekenders and other part-time residents -- many of them well-heeled baby boomers buying expensive second homes for early retirement.

"I've just about had it with this `me, me, me' attitude," says Commissioner Ron Fox, a Talbot County native who's lived in Oxford for 12 years. "Maybe they want us to circle the town and have people show their financial statements before we let them in."

At issue are 16 park benches town officials ordered this summer, most of them installed at the unpaved sections of streets that end at the river or along Town Creek.

In the days before public water service was available, firetrucks backed down the streets to the river to draw water.

Watermen and others who didn't have waterfront lots tied up boats at the end of these "paper streets," which have long been shown on local maps as public property.

The grassy enclaves were often tended by adjoining property owners, who mowed the strips with occasional help from town maintenance crews. The unspoken understanding was that residents, especially those living in nearby lots away from the water, would have free access.

And that's fine, says Elizabeth Schaefer, a Philadelphia native who moved into the waterfront cottage she calls "Sanderling" on Christmas Eve 1995.

The rub, according to Schaefer and her neighbors, is the bench that she says began attracting out-of-town visitors almost as soon as it was placed on the waterfront next to her house on Riverview Avenue this summer.

The first weekend the bench was there, Schaefer says, six people pulled up in a car with out-of-state plates, unloaded beach blankets and coolers and set up on her neighbor's dock. When confronted, Schaefer says, the visitors said they saw the bench and figured the adjacent dock also was public.

"The people who live here, the people who buy these properties and pay the taxes are not given any consideration," Schaefer says. "There seems to be more consideration given to tourists. In all fairness, they can't put that [NIMBY] label on me."

Both sides seem eager to settle the matter before a judge in the county courthouse a few miles up the road in Easton.

The town commission has authorized its attorney to seek a court ruling making clear the land is public. Schaefer and two of her neighbors have hired an attorney to challenge that position.

"We're new here, and we seem to be unpopular at the moment," says Mary Weaver. She and her husband, Richard, a federal government retiree from Northern Virginia, are rebuilding a 1920s house next door to Schaefer. "I wish this hadn't come up. It seems to have been blown so out of proportion."

Longtime Oxford residents say the newcomers are missing the point, clashing with the town's view of itself as a place where working-class tradesmen and watermen have always rubbed shoulders with the wealthy yachtsmen who were raised here or who are quickly snapping up waterfront homes.

"I don't think it's mean-spirited, but I think there are people who want to keep out the `riffraff,'" says Susan Delean-Botkin, who bought a house in town four years ago after sailing in the area for more than 30 years. "I think these are city people who just haven't learned how to relax. It seems like something so minor, but it's polarized our little community."

A frequent complaint, say Oxford officials, occurs when boat owners learn that coveted deepwater boat slips at town-owned docks go first to watermen for $189 a year -- a fraction of the cost for private slips.

"It's in our town charter that we try to maintain the maritime tradition of Oxford," says Sidney Campen, a North Carolina native who's lived here for 32 years.

"This was a watermen's town up until the '50s, when they got public water and sewer," Campen says. "It's come to be thought of as this cute, quaint village, and suddenly everybody wants to be here. But we've always been a very homogenous group in Oxford, and we'd like to keep it that way."

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