Sprawling debate in a tiny town

September 22, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The porch at Ron and Ann Wolfe's house in Deale is the kind of place that makes you never want to go to work again.

Secluded under a cooling vault of trees, the couple can look past lush banks of vegetation to the still waters of Parker Creek, where the sun casts a golden glint and birds chatter as they skim the surface. Just a few minutes up the creek lies the open Chesapeake Bay.

Why, they wonder, would any sane person want to bring a sprawling chain grocery or a cluster of condominiums to this peaceful realm in southern Anne Arundel County? "We want to be left alone, and if it gets all fancied up, we won't be left alone," Ann Wolfe said one recent morning.

Five minutes away, in the back room of the office supply store she has owned for 23 years, Claire Mallicote hopes for exactly the growth that the Wolfes have been trying to keep out. She's pretty sure that unless Deale, population 2,000, expands and modernizes, the number of shop owners will dwindle.

"We're dying a slow economic death," Mallicote said on a recent afternoon.

These competing visions for the tiny town's future have led to tense square-offs over two high-profile development proposals in the past five years. In both cases, residents such as the Wolfes beat the projects back. But given the high demand for coastal property, partisans on both sides say the growth debate is likely to continue for years. The developer of one of the rebuffed projects, Walt Petrie of Annapolis, said he will submit a revamped plan for waterfront senior housing in the next few weeks.

The conflict is one with which communities up and down the Maryland shoreline are familiar. Across the Bay Bridge, towns such as Trappe and Princess Anne are reviewing development proposals that could more than double their populations. To the south, strip malls are crowding highways in once-rural towns such as Dunkirk and Waldorf.

"It's a shame, because people are looking for these quiet little places, but because of that demand, they're always going to be threatened," said Richard Clinch, an economist at the University of Baltimore who studies growth trends.

Deale - right on the water, 30 minutes from Annapolis and an hour from Washington - could be appealing to builders, land-use experts say.

"Ultimately, some developer will buy the land and wait out the process, because the profits are there," said Clinch. "The pressure is just too great on waterfront land."

But the town, even though it isn't incorporated and has no government, has earned a reputation as an ornery opponent in development battles.

It's also not an area designated for growth in the county's land-use plans. Planning director Joe Rutter has said southern Anne Arundel should, for the most part, be left alone.

Expansion will probably happen in the long run, said Petrie, the Annapolis developer who proposed a mixed-use "town center" in Deale this year, only to be deterred by local opposition. "But I don't think you're going to see another developer go down there for a while," he said. "It's a confusing, difficult place to work."

That might seem like a victory for anti-growth activists, Petrie said, but residents could end up with several low-quality projects instead of one planned development.

"It's unfortunate," he said.

Photos of Deale from 70 years ago show a shoreline marked by well-spaced farmhouses, a cluster of summer bungalows and small packs of modest boats. Only a few stores -Deales Garage and H.W. Windsor, which sold Esso gas - lined the unpaved road leading into town.

The Deale waterfront, located in Anne Arundel's southeastern corner, was first settled in the late 1600s and became a popular destination for fishing and oyster vessels. It gradually became a summer retreat for Washington-area residents, who until the 1930s could reach the Calvert County shoreline, just to the south, by train.

Now houses - some with showy three-tier porches and gleaming two-story windows - and chains such as Domino's, Papa John's, Blockbuster and M&T Bank fill the once-open fields. Deale is also home to one of Maryland's largest marinas, Herrington Harbour North, and waterfront seafood restaurants with names like Calypso Bay and Happy Harbor.

But as much as Deale has changed, it still projects a low-key feel. Well-worn buildings and plain business facades predominate.

"It's like an old shoe that had been on the side of the road since the winter before last - not that attractive from the outside, but from the inside, comfortable," said Ron Wolfe, an Arabic language specialist who works in the Washington area.

Many residents love that image, figuring it will keep the hordes away from their tranquil shorelines and heron-populated coves. They don't want Deale to become something else - a strip-mall haven such as Edgewater or a touristy village such as St. Michaels.

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