Proposal to hire private planner in Crisfield draws wide criticism

Company could be given control over waterfront

July 29, 2005|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Business and community leaders in Crisfield are up in arms over a proposed agreement they say would turn over virtually all land-use decisions in Maryland's southernmost city to a private development firm headed by a former state delegate and a Delaware developer.

According to critics, a management pact between the city, which is in Somerset County, and the for-profit company, Crisfield Associates LLC, would allow the company to control "every last gem of waterfront" until 2014 if officials agree to relinquish planning authority.

Under terms of an eight-page document prepared by the company and leaked to business leaders last week, Crisfield Associates would become the city's "exclusive partner, adviser and master developer of present and future City-owned and City-controlled land."

Publicly owned land outside the city limits that could become part of Crisfield's revitalization plan includes the Crisfield-Somerset County Airport, Janes Island State Park and a public golf course, according to the document.

The proposal surprised opponents such as John K. Phoebus, a Crisfield attorney who represents property owners and developers who have spurred a boom in waterfront condominium construction in the city that once was known as a hub of the seafood industry.

"What they'd become is the city's exclusive gatekeepers," said Phoebus, whose hasty call for a public meeting on the controversy drew 80 people last week. "Just look at their own language. You can't have a development plan where one company gets first dibs on everything from now to 2014."

Developer Joseph J. Corrado Sr. and former Maryland delegate Charles A. McClenahan, two partners in the firm, have pledged more than $600,000 to the city to help pay for a revitalization plan and an update of the city's comprehensive development plan - regulations that would guide future development.

"Corrado met with me about a year ago, and we could see the obvious potential in Crisfield," said McClenahan, an insurance agent who served 11 years in the House of Delegates. "It looks to me that Crisfield is going ahead with little or no overall plan. We're looking at this as a good private-public partnership."

The company also played a key role last winter as Crisfield officials scrambled to meet a Dec. 1 deadline to apply for the state's Priority Places program, an economic development tool aimed at bringing state resources to projects that could serve as catalysts for development.

Crisfield was one of two cities selected in April. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is scheduled to be in Crisfield today to formally note the partnership.

State planning officials have been alerted to the recent controversy and planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott has talked to city leaders, according to Charles Gates, a planning department spokesman.

"We would not support something that would give one company total control of development for an extended period of time," Gates said. "A huge part of the ranking process for communities who apply for Priority Places is the depth of community support."

City Councilman Percy J. Purnell Jr., said he has been reminding constituents that, so far, all the hoopla in the city of 2,700 revolves around a proposal that is clearly marked "for Discussion Purposes Only."

"At this point, I can't say whether we'll go with Crisfield Associates, other developers or just bite the bullet and pay for whatever we need ourselves," Purnell said.

"As a small town, we don't want to go into debt to come up with long-range planning," he said. "In the end, I think cooler heads will prevail."

But Steve Marshall, a 15-year-veteran on Crisfield's planning commission who works as Somerset County's emergency operations director, quickly signed on with opponents of the proposed agreement.

"Crisfield is changing really fast, and there is a large segment of our population that wants to preserve our heritage," Marshall said. "Most of us agree that Priority Places is a good thing, but people still want Crisfield to remain theirs."

Many residents who resisted tentative plans last winter by the Department of Natural Resources to sell the 486-slip Somers Cove Marina, worry that the 40-year-old facility will eventually become the centerpiece of a public-private revitalization effort that could also include taking land that now has a public housing complex overlooking the marina.

Marshall and others see clear potential for conflict since Crisfield Associates paid $4.7 million for an abandoned shipyard north of town on the Big Annemessex River.

County officials, says McClenahan, asked the company to buy the property as a possible docking site should Crisfield succeed in its five-year effort to begin a Chesapeake Bay ferry service that would link the town with Virginia's Northern Neck. If ferry service were ever approved, McClenahan said, the property could be sold to the town at cost.

Phoebus, however, says he has never heard any such request to help preserve options for a ferry terminal.

"I'm on the county economic development commission, and I've never heard about it," said Phoebus, who is urging the city to sever all ties with Crisfield Associates.

Opponents want the town to appoint a nonprofit management group to oversee downtown revitalization. "If you come up with a plan to rule the world," Phoebus said, "don't be surprised when people are upset."

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