Facing big dose of change

Development: Residents of a narrow peninsula of Perryman along the Bush River will be getting a bunch of new neighbors - a planned community that includes 54 single-family homes.

February 02, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

When Edward Severn stands on the dock of his Bush River home on a winter day, he sometimes catches sight of an eagle, perched at the edge of a hole in the frozen water, waiting.

From his perch on the southern tip of the Perryman peninsula, Severn, 65, is waiting, too - for something he never dreamed of when he was swimming and fishing here as a kid, or when he and his wife, Sandra, built their home next to a beloved crab house called Gabler's Shore Restaurant.

Severn is getting some new neighbors, not one or two, or even 10 or two dozen, but 54, in single-family homes planned for lots of one-tenth of an acre next door. It's more like 108 new neighbors, he notes, or even 150 or 200.

"Life is not going to be the same after they build these houses," he said wistfully one recent afternoon.

Gablers Shore LLC is designing the more than $5 million home-restaurant-marina project, which aims to revitalize a parcel of about 15 acres on the peninsula, a narrow strip of land along the Bush River created after Aberdeen Proving Ground moved in to the south.

The developers see the planned community as a win for the county, because they are cleaning up an area marked by an aging marina, rusting vacation trailers - many of which had failing septic systems - and the closed crab house. But neighbors see it as a disastrous end to the simple life on Perryman they have loved for decades.

At Tuesday's County Council meeting, members are set to vote on a technical but important provision that may influence the size of the houses and the degree of water-quality management on site.

The houses are coming, that much is certain. They will join a host of projects on the peninsula, which the county designated for future growth 50 years ago. The land, which stretches out flatly from Route 7 to the river's edge, bears names like Canning House Road and Mitchells Lane that hint at the area's rich history.

The area was agricultural and didn't change much until the 1990s, when that future growth came calling at the county's southern doorstep. Today, warehouses sprawl along the eastern edge, and a new luxury townhouse community is growing at the northern end, at the site of the old Bata Shoe factory.

And here on the old Gabler's property, a second swank community will grow, too, from a plat laid out originally in the 1930s when a local landowner envisioned weekend vacation cottages for folks hoping to escape the summer heat.

Under state law, the Gablers Shore developers can use the 70-year-old plat as a basis for their project.

It's the kind of intricate land-use issue that crops up across the state, where old property plats are grandfathered, which protects original land uses even when more current law might restrict the size of a project.

And as the county heads into a comprehensive land review and rezoning process this year, it's a cautionary tale about the importance of getting involved in the process.

"It's not always something that's easy to follow," said Regina Esslinger, chief of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission's project review committee. She noted that planners working full time have a tough time keeping up with land-use projects, and for concerned citizens, the prospects are daunting.

What results are frustrated neighbors who don't understand the planning process, who feel disenfranchised when grandfathered projects such as this one come to roost in their back yard.

This project also has evolved under a cloud of suspicion almost from the start, after the county quietly - and legally - divested its interest in about 3 acres of the land, which it had acquired by mistake in a land-conservation effort in the 1990s.

The investors in Gablers Shore - Robert Hockaday, Richard Streett, Robert Freeze and Robert Geis - are political supporters of County Executive James M. Harkins. Though state environmental officials who reviewed the land transfer have declared it legal and proper, neighbors continue to suspect that the group has gotten some kind of favorable treatment from the county.

Joseph Snee, the developers' lawyer, said that cloud poses a frustration for his clients, who are doing much to improve Perryman - something that he said is overlooked.

Snee pointed to the tax revenues that will be generated by upscale houses, which will likely go for at least $350,000 apiece, and added value to the surrounding property.

"I would hope everybody could support that," he said. "I just find it ironic that people want a healthy economy, they want a lot of services, yet they complain when we build good housing."

In this case, the property lines were drawn a full 50 years before the birth of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Program, which has strict rules today about waterfront property, but in this case, has little leverage, officials say.

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