Small town carefully maps out its future

ON THE BAY

Vienna: An Eastern Shore community develops a vision for growth that avoids suburban sprawl.

October 22, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

Two maps of the Nanticoke River, drawn nearly four centuries apart, appear side by side on Michael Scott's computer at Salisbury University's department of geography and geosciences.

The 1608 version, part of the first mapping of the Chesapeake Bay by Capt. John Smith, was accomplished with a none-too-accurate compass and an astrolabe, which ascertained latitude but not longitude (that calculation wouldn't be refined until 1780).

For all that, Smith's map of the broad and still largely undeveloped river flowing under U.S. 50 at Vienna is remarkably similar to the latest satellite-derived photos.

It's similar enough that Scott, using a computer mapping technique called "rubber sheeting," has been able to digitally tug and stretch and fit the two maps together to establish with some confidence that Smith put ashore to meet Native Americans virtually on the outskirts of modern-day Vienna.

Tiny Vienna (population 300) commissioned Scott's study in hopes of parlaying the results into a major tourist attraction, an interpretative center on Smith's historic explorations and charting of the Chesapeake, whose 400th anniversary will be celebrated in 2007.

It's a fascinating story waiting to be told. But of even greater and immediate importance for the Chesapeake region is the story of Vienna, a beacon in a sea of suburban sprawl, an all-too-rare example of how to grow and prosper without losing heritage and identity, without trashing the environment.

Vienna is close to joining the growing list of Eastern Shore towns -- Trappe, Cambridge, Denton, Hebron and others -- that are annexing nearby farmland and overnight ensuring that their populations double, triple and more.

Too often, this is occurring haphazardly, with little or no thought as to how it can enhance the existing community. But Vienna looks to be different.

A few years ago, the town -- still laid out along the lines of its original 1706 plan -- began working with the Conservation Fund, a national land preservation group, on a vision for its future.

Many residents attended sessions at the local firehouse to pore over maps that laid out various scenarios. A consensus evolved around a future that built on the town's historic assets, tourism, and potential as a gateway to the unspoiled marshes, woods and waterways of the Nanticoke region.

Russ Brinsfield, the town's mayor, has worked with groups like the Nature Conservancy and Maryland's Department of Natural Resources to preserve farms and commercial timberlands up and down river from development.

Meanwhile, he is in negotiations with a developer to annex about 400 acres of farmland adjacent to Vienna, where town water and sewer can be extended to allow dense development.

It won't overwhelm the sewer and other infrastructure, because in recent years Vienna has taken advantage of state Smart Growth money for upgrades.

The annexation plans would limit growth at about 900 people, triple the present population. "It's about the capacity of the sewage treatment plant," Brinsfield says, "and it's the minimum critical mass we need to attract a small grocery and maybe a pharmacy."

Unlike so many other towns, Vienna understands that its bargaining power with would-be developers is at a maximum before it agrees to annex.

The town is insisting on lots of public open space, excellent design standards and a layout that connects the new and old parts of town.

Every Shore town is different, of course. But what Vienna has done -- a vision, a plan, a consensus of townspeople, preserving the surrounding rural landscape, building on its natural assets, matching growth to infrastructure -- these are translatable to anywhere.

It's not hard to predict that Vienna is going to become one of the more desirable places to live and visit on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore.

On a larger scale, the town may someday fit into a proposed John Smith National Water Trail, whose development is the brainchild of Conservation Fund founder Patrick Noonan. This would preserve and link exemplary waterfront regions like Vienna and the Nanticoke around the entire Chesapeake.

Imagine in an age when we are numbed by rampant sprawl development if someone said: "Hey, our little town's going to triple in size overnight," and your first thought was, "That's going to be great."

In Vienna, it seems possible.

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