CAMBRIDGE -- The Ehrlich administration has endorsed a proposal to build 3,200 homes, a hotel, golf course and conference center on a 1,080-acre swath of farms and wetlands leading to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
Supporters say the project is sorely needed to bring people and jobs to an Eastern Shore city trying to rebound.
"If you have gone from 12,500 population in 1960 to 11,000 residents today, I would stipulate you would require some kind of stimulus," said Cambridge Mayor Cleveland Rippons.
But critics say allowing such development on environmentally sensitive land well outside downtown is a perversion of the state's Smart Growth law.
"The state and city are abdicating their planning responsibility to react to the developer's whim," said Al Barry, a Baltimore-based planning consultant who helped Cambridge write its land-use plan.
Cambridge officials proposed adding the ribbon of land jutting out from the city to its designated growth area so developer Duane E.E. Zentgraf could build the $1 billion Blackwater Resort Communities.
Under the 1997 Smart Growth law, which is meant to discourage sprawl, the state could refuse to endorse such plans - making the area ineligible for state funding for roads and sewers. But over the summer, the Maryland Department of Planning approved the Cambridge proposal.
During a recent interview about the approval, state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott at first said her agency didn't have the legal authority to refuse. Later, she clarified that officials chose not to challenge the project because they didn't want the state to get sued or to contradict local officials.
"We don't want to usurp local power or local identity," Scott said. "We'd end up in court, and we'd lose. Talk about wasting taxpayer money."
The Smart Growth Act says the Planning Department can refuse to certify locally designated growth zones as eligible for state funding if they don't represent "an orderly expansion of growth and an efficient use of land."
The Blackwater Resort project - which still needs final approval by other state agencies and local government - would almost double the population of Cambridge. It would develop some land that state environmental officials have designated as a "resource conservation area," a "natural heritage area," and "wetlands of special state concern."
Douglas G. Worrall, attorney for an opposition group called Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth, said: "Especially under the Bobby Ehrlich administration, the state has taken a laissez-faire position in regards to Smart Growth. You simply submit an application, and it gets approved."
Scott denied this, saying Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has continued and improved upon the sprawl-prevention initiative started by his predecessor, Democrat Parris N. Glendening. "This governor is totally committed to the principles of Smart Growth," Scott said.
The Smart Growth law was designed to discourage development on farmland and environmentally sensitive areas and instead concentrate growth in cities and towns. But Cambridge officials and the state planning office contend that the Blackwater project meets the legal definition of Smart Growth because it will have more than 3.5 homes per acre and be connected to city water and sewer systems.
Promotional material for the 3,200-home Blackwater Resort project advertises it as an outdoorsy retirement and resort community with proximity to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which is about two miles south on Egypt Road.
Photos in the project's glossy plan show a sunset over marsh grass, men fishing and swinging golf clubs, and a basket of crabs on a dock. "It's not just a place, it's a lifestyle," is the motto for the development.
Designs on file in the Cambridge planning office show 1,700 single-family homes, many of them on cul-de-sacs around neighborhood greens and recreation centers with tennis courts and pools. Rising nearby would be 600 townhouses and 900 clustered condominiums in buildings of up to four stories.
The project would be immediately south of Maple Elementary School and would have sidewalks so that children could walk to school, said William "Sandy" McAllister, the developer's attorney.
"What's the growth industry on the Eastern Shore? It's retirement communities and second homes," McAllister said. "Smart growth is putting that development near the existing infrastructure and schools."
Stores and services
As part of the project, a conference center and hotel would be built near the Little Blackwater River, as well as a public access pier, golf course, clubhouse and spa. A retail center would feature a day care center and shops such as a deli, dry cleaner and video store.