Conservancy tries to save Eastern Shore from sprawl

Group wants help saving land by scenic Route 213

July 26, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE - Leaders of an Eastern Shore land preservation group called yesterday for urgent government action to save the rural vistas along a scenic two-lane highway that meanders through what has, until recently, been traditional Delmarva farming country.

"This is a National Scenic Byway here," Robert Etgen, executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, said as he led Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest on a tour of Route 213 in Queen Anne's County. "We're going to watch it go down the drain."

Etgen appealed for more federal, state and local funding to help buy up development rights along the road. He also called on Queen Anne's County officials to tighten zoning laws that he contends are fostering the conversion of croplands to subdivisions.

In a criticism heard across Maryland as suburbia spreads across rural landscapes, Etgen said that there has been an "explosion" of development activity in the past 18 months along a road designated in 1996 as one of the state's most scenic. Housing has been proposed on at least seven farms lining Route 213, he said, with more plans likely soon.

"Everyone wants to move down to the Eastern Shore," observed former Gov. Harry Hughes, chairman of the land conservancy's board of directors.

Queen Anne's is the state's seventh-fastest growing county, according to recent census estimates. The conservancy, which has preserved 36,000 acres of farmland on the Shore, is scrambling to come up with $4.5 million to buy a 318-acre farm on the outskirts of Centreville, the county seat.

The conservancy remains $1.47 million short of the asking price, with only a week to go before its 90-day option expires, said Sandra Edwards, a land-protection specialist. Earlier in the tour, she described how the group already had let its option lapse on another 218-acre farm, still for sale for $3.5 million.

Gilchrest pledged to do what he could to help, and he pointed out that the federal highway bill now awaiting passage by Congress includes funds for preserving land along scenic roads. The Republican, whose district covers the Shore, also expressed sympathy with the group's call for reform of Queen Anne's development policies.

"It's sprawl, reinforced by statute," Gilchrest said of a provision that allows a developer to acquire home-building rights from other landowners and concentrate them on one tract.

Originally intended to help farmers, the county's "noncontiguous" development-rights transfer program has allowed more than 600 homes to be built in rural areas - though county planners say the measure also has preserved more than 4,400 acres by shifting housing away from that land.

But Etgen said that developers have proposed using the provision on 23 different projects countywide to build nearly 800 more homes.

"We wouldn't have to go and try to buy everything on the market if we didn't have weak underlying zoning," Etgen said, noting that Queen Anne's allows one home to be built on every 8 acres of rural land - compared with up to 30 acres per house in neighboring Kent County.

Joseph F. Cupani, president of the county commissioners board, said officials have had preliminary discussions about reforming the development-rights transfer program. One proposal to restrict it - offered by the owner of a large preserved farm - has been stalled by an ethics complaint filed against the head of the county's planning commission, Cupani said.

Meanwhile, the commissioners have scheduled a public hearing tonight on a two-year study of how to preserve the county's farming heritage and rural scenic vistas. Among the task force's recommendations: let developers build a few more houses than zoning allows if they stay up to 1,000 feet back from scenic roads such as Route 213; and require 50-foot wooded buffers along all stretches where houses have been built.

"We know everybody wants a 1-acre lot with a house on it," Cupani said. "It's up to us to figure out a way of where to put it and how. It's not an easy job."

But Michael S. Koval, another of the five county commissioners, acknowledged that as officials mull what, if any action, to take, developers keep filing plans "to get in under the wire."

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