Shore towns embrace growth

Survival: Some communities are welcoming controlled development as a way to boost their tax base while maintaining local character.

November 30, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TRAPPE - To Cheryl Lewis and lots of her neighbors in this Eastern Shore town, the developer's proposal sounded like the proverbial offer they couldn't refuse.

Trappe, a cluster of about 450 houses alongside busy U.S. 50, could welcome a 900-acre planned community of perhaps 2,000 new houses and a host of commercial properties. Or the town could stand pat, watching as tourist and real estate dollars keep flowing into well-heeled Easton and St. Michaels, or into up-and-coming Cambridge.

"If we had the wealth and the waterfront of some of these other places, I don't think we would be talking about growth," says Lewis, the Trappe commission president. But development, she says, "is the key to our survival as a town."

Small towns across the Shore are embracing growth as developers mark off big parcels of flat farmland, some far from the beaches that have long drawn newcomers to the region.

In Princess Anne, town leaders would like to see the Somerset County seat's population of 2,313 increase by 60 percent. The new residents - and the revenue they would bring - are critical if the town is to remain vital, municipal officials say.

Berlin has capitalized on its proximity to Ocean City and its small-town ambience - which provided a backdrop for two Hollywood movies - to tally more than $20 million in development in the past three years.

Crisfield, dormant through decades of decline in the seafood industry, is experiencing a surge in interest as its old waterfront is redeveloped. The town of fewer than 3,000 is home to four real estate offices. Developers can't seem to demolish vacant seafood plants fast enough to make way for luxury condominiums and townhouses.

Even the village of Vienna, where 280 people live along the relatively undeveloped Nanticoke River, is getting into the act. Town leaders have enlisted help from a nonprofit conservation group to plan the annexation of a former dairy farm. New houses there would double Vienna's population and help finance public amenities such as a town square and a new Town Hall.

"This is growth that doesn't threaten our sense of place," says Mayor Russell Brinsfield. "We need about 1,000 people to sustain a pharmacy, a grocery, another restaurant. We are poised to handle growth we knew was coming to Vienna, growth that people here see as an improvement to the quality of life."

Conservationists and others worry that large-scale developments could change the nature of these small communities, ushering in a wave of national retailers, worsening traffic congestion and increasing environmental pressure on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

"The scale of it all is so out of control it can't rightly be called Smart Growth," says Thomas T. Alspach, an Easton attorney who heads the Talbot Preservation Alliance. "The development community has very cleverly attached itself to Smart Growth, but people seem to be ignoring the issue of scale in these small towns."

Analysts who track trends on the still-largely rural Delmarva Peninsula say that pushing development near municipalities is consistent with the Smart Growth land-preservation model that has guided the state's planning in recent years. The approach will help stave off the loss of more farmland and other open space, supporters say.

"In a weird way, this makes sense from a Smart Growth perspective," says Memo S. Diriker, an economist who heads the Business Economic and Community Outreach Network at Salisbury University.

Such growth is also inevitable, in his view. "Anyone who thinks something can be done to reverse these trends is just naive at best," he says.

Developers, including some of the nation's largest builders, have begun forming partnerships with local companies, hoping that annexations will provide ready land for projects that might keep them in work for 15 to 20 years.

George Maurer, senior planner for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says Smart Growth provides a blueprint for development heading for the Shore. But he cautions that growth could come with sacrifices.

"It does seem like the model, but Smart Growth can be a double-edged sword," Maurer says. "What people fear is that they'll wind up with both high-density growth in town and still get low-density sprawl out in the rural areas. The growth has to happen in a way that's compatible with the towns."

Development, municipal leaders say, is largely being fueled by increasing numbers of young retirees and those who are buying second homes in hopes of retiring on the Shore.

In Crisfield, Maryland's southernmost town, officials are calling their community the next big thing in the waterfront retirement or second-home market.

"Clearly, we're attracting more early retirees, baby boom-era people. And right now, 420 units are in the works," says John K. Phoebus, an attorney with an office near the waterfront. "We're lucky in that everybody seems to be in love with all of it. We're replacing decrepit industrial-type properties with upscale residential."

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