Storm destruction spurs a boom in development

February 21, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

NORTH BEACH - The small waterfront cottages that dotted this once-seedy seaside town are becoming an endangered species.

But unlike the rampant land speculation in other waterfront communities, nature had a hand in quickening this quiet Calvert County town's transformation.

Even before Tropical Storm Isabel brought winds and waves rushing through North Beach in September 2003, people had started to see that its reputation as a destination for the down and out was out-of-date. As it often goes in small places like this, though, change was coming slowly.

When the storm hit, destroying more than a dozen homes and waterlogging scores more, it accelerated development that has doubled or tripled home prices in a matter of months. Many charming - some might say dilapidated - cottages have been bulldozed to make way for hulking three- and four-story structures that look like Hummers squeezed into parking spaces designed for Miatas.

Also, there are plans for new houses and condominiums, a 72-room boutique hotel and upscale shops to be built over the next several years.

"A year or two ago, I was shocked when waterfront property was sold for $190,000," said Mark R. Frazer, a dentist and the town's mayor since 1998. "Then I was shocked when they sold for $270,000. Then over $300,000. Then half a million."

One building lot big enough for two or three houses has a price tag of $1.2 million.

"I expected the town to become discovered and I expected property values to increase," he said, "but the pace of that discovery and the extent to which property values have risen have surprised me."

The value of the taxable property in North Beach, population 2,000, now runs around $100 million. With the new construction, Frazer expects that to nearly double. All this in a bayfront town only a mile-and-a-half long.

There are building height requirements in the town - 40 feet on the waterfront, slightly lower inland - and some setback and flood plain rules. But, says an obviously pleased Frazer, "within those guidelines, we'd like to see them be able to build whatever they like." And they are.

Before the storm, Billie Hinnefeld's two-bedroom place was small but spiffed up with murals and handpainted floors. Hinnefeld and her three cats planned to ride out Isabel, but when the water rushed in at the height of the storm, she had to be rescued.

The house she loved was unlivable, and she sold it for $281,000 that November, more than $100,000 more than she paid in 1994. She probably could have gotten even more had she waited.

The new owners, the Dotsons, demolished her little place and are now building a 3,300-square- foot, four-bedroom, 3 1/2 -bath- room house that will cover nearly every square foot of the snug lot. Chris Dotson and her new husband have seven children between them, and they wanted the space in case everyone came to visit at once. The Dotsons have already sold their lawnmower.

When neighbor Marc Goodman moved in 10 years ago, he paid $188,000 for his two-story shingled house with its wall of windows out front to take in the breathtaking view. He thought he might have paid too much.

"When I moved here, this was the biggest and nicest house on the street," said Goodman, an energy consultant who works from his bedroom. "Mine was like the ultimate house."

Now, the windows in Goodman's breakfast nook look out on the new concrete of the Dotsons' first-story garage next door. The windows in Goodman's guest bedroom are not six feet from the windows of what will be the Dotson family's living space. Everything is so close that from there it's possible to see through to the house going up on the Dotsons' other side.

"It's too dense," Goodman said. "There's no open space. The houses are out of scale to the lots."

On some level, it's hard to believe prices stayed so low here for so long. The unfettered views of the water from this Western Shore town are reminiscent of the ocean. It's small and quaint and less than an hour's commute to Washington, 45 minutes or less to Annapolis.

The place was a boomtown in the first half of the 20th century. Washingtonians owned summer homes here and spent the season at the beach. There were slot machines. The railroad stopped in Chesapeake Beach, the next town south.

But then the tourists disappeared with the 1952 opening of the Bay Bridge, which made a trip to the ocean an easier proposition. In the ensuing decades, North Beach's economy collapsed, and it became known more for its bars on every corner and the motorcycle gangs that frequented them.

"This was a town parents told their children not to come to, so naturally when they got in the car they made a beeline for North Beach," Frazer said.

Before being elected, Frazer says, there were drug deals on the beach and too much drinking. Sometimes, pit bulls roamed the small boardwalk, he said. One of the first things he did as mayor was create a beach patrol and charge admission to the beach - both of which made a big difference.

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