Changing tides for residences along shoreline

Isabel: The destruction is likely to accelerate the trend of mini-mansions pushing middle-income families and summer cottages from the waterfront.

October 13, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Since Debbie Allen bought her 943 square feet of paradise, she has watched 16 years of sunrises over the Chesapeake Bay and boats crawling past her window. She has also watched the homes around her get larger and larger.

If she is forced to sell because she can't find a way to repair the damage Tropical Storm Isabel inflicted on her small home, her Pasadena lot could become the site of the next waterfront mini-mansion.

Allen, 50, a widow with three children who teaches driver education, hasn't figured out how she can afford to rebuild.

"We're upper lower-class, lower middle-class," the Anne Arundel County resident says.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, people like the Allens - middle-income families with million-dollar views - have gradually been pushed from Anne Arundel County's 533-mile shoreline and Baltimore County's 175 miles. So have the quaint summer cottages that long defined the waterfront. In their place, larger and larger homes have sprouted.

Those who know the coast say Isabel's passing will accelerate that change. In Anne Arundel, it destroyed 72 homes and did major damage to 595 more. In Baltimore County more than 300 homes must be torn down, and hundreds more were damaged.

Most of the homes were small, old and on the shore.

Where those smaller homes disappear, larger residences perched atop stilts will take their place, real estate agents and community activists say.

In Bowleys Quarters overlooking Galloway Creek, Douglas and Shanon Zinn of Owings Mills owned a shore shack that they used as weekend getaways. That was before Isabel.

Now the Baltimore County couple have an empty waterfront lot and plans to build a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a loft.

"Isabel did the demolition for us," Shanon Zinn says.

Annapolis real estate agent Charlie Buckley has a joke he tells clients who complain about the million-dollar prices of run-down waterfront homes.

"I can tear down the house," he tells them, "but it will still cost you a million."

It wasn't so long ago that waterfront property wasn't so coveted. That's where watermen lived. They weren't upper-class, and they didn't own large homes.

That was before two modern amenities became common: homes with central air conditioning and boats made of fiberglass, making sailing affordable to the middle class, says Buckley, who trademarked his nickname, "Mr. Waterfront."

Real estate agents and longtime waterfront families disagree about what caused the area's first waterfront housing boom, but they agree that it was about 1970.

It happened "all of a sudden," says Severna Park Re/Max broker Rich Dobry, who began specializing in waterfront property in 1975.

New homes filled gaps between cottages and shore shacks. Homes lined nearly the entire coast.

About that time, building requirements started to change. Baltimore County adopted codes in the 1970s requiring anyone building within the state's flood plains - or making "substantial" repairs or renovations - to elevate the first floor above the "100-year flood" level. Anne Arundel adopted similar laws in 1974.

The desire for waterfront property intensified in the 1980s with Annapolis marketing itself as the "sailing capital." The state and counties improved the roads to the coast, expanding U.S. 50 and building Interstate 97.

With the shoreline built up, the only way newcomers could build was to raze homes and build new ones that met the new laws. In the process, the new arrivals created Maryland's distinctive eclectic shoreline.

"You still see a million-dollar home next to a sugar shack," says Mike Williams, whose family has lived on the water near Annapolis for six generations.

The trend toward waterfront mansions hit Anne Arundel first, real estate agents say, because of its proximity to Washington and Baltimore.

"It's happening in Baltimore County, too," says Dobry, a former chief executive officer of Coldwell Banker in Baltimore. "They're just a few years behind" Anne Arundel.

For three consecutive years, the biggest price increases have been for waterfront and high-priced homes, according to tax assessments released by the state.

Prices top $1 million

Over the past year, the average Annapolis-area waterfront home has sold for more than $1 million, says Connie Morrisette of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.

Residents whose homes were damaged by Isabel are waiting to hear what their insurance companies will pay them. Then they must decide whether to sell or keep, to rebuild or tear down.

And, if they rebuild, whether it will be the same size house or a bigger one.

Baltimore County has issued 1,200 building permits - about 60 a day - for repairs and reconstruction projects in the eastern part of the county, said Timothy M. Kotroco, the county director of permits and development management.

He says he has seen some plans to build the kinds of bigger homes that might be found along North Carolina's Outer Banks. Some others are going with modular homes, which can be built quickly.

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