Growth plan divisive in rural town

One side sees new housing and shopping centers, the other crowded schools, roads


DENTON -- Brad Horsey and Jack Cole grew up a few blocks from each other in the post-World War II era, the sons of prominent politicians in a typical farm town. Since then, they've watched Denton's once-bustling business district lose its grocery stores, its pharmacy, its hotel.

When they thought the community needed leadership, both men stepped up to serve.

But Horsey, who is Denton's mayor, wants the town of 3,000 to become a small city of 15,000 over the next 20 years - complete with a 3,000-unit development in West Denton, a slew of new shopping centers and a Wal-Mart.

Cole, who is president of the Caroline County commissioners, worries that growth will tax an already stressed agricultural county - bringing roads jammed with big-city commuters and schools so full even the trailers are crowded.

These differing views show how the debate over growth is polarizing this Eastern Shore town. The county commissioners are preparing to sue the town over its plans to annex the land for West Denton. And this month's election showed a sharply divided town; Horsey was re-elected by just one vote.

"We only get one opportunity to do it right. And I'm afraid we are not coming close to doing it right," says Cole, 61. "If we're not there already, we're very close to where we could exceed the point of no return."

Horsey, 70, replies that he's tired of Cole and his cohorts criticizing Denton, and says that if county officials had issues with the town's growth plans, they should have spoken up years ago.

"There isn't anyone in county government that knows a thing about municipal government," Horsey says. "In 1997, we gave the county our growth plans. Evidently, the county government did not pay attention."

These opposing views of Denton's destiny are debated in its historic downtown, where power brokers past and present know each other from childhood. Caroline County Economic Development Director J.O.K. Walsh has described the dynamic at meetings of county and town officials as "like the Israelis and the Palestinians."

The disagreement has even reached the legislature, where state Sen. E.J. Pipkin told county and town leaders to hash out a growth plan or have one foisted upon them.

Drive around Denton with Horsey or Cole, and two different towns emerge.

With Horsey as tour guide, Denton looks like a place re-emerging after a long slump. He points to the once-vacant pharmacy downtown, now home to a county social services office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Not far away is the old A&P market, which houses the Board of Education. And the old Acme market is now the county's health and public services building. Even the green trash cans lining the streets were made at one of the town's factories.

Just beyond the brick courthouse where his father served as clerk and a town crier used to call out the day's headlines, a ribbon of waterfront reveals a landing that Horsey hopes will become a public park.

The river follows the highway out of town, where Horsey points with pride to three shopping centers, a combination Arby's/mini-mart/gas station, and a new Best Western hotel.

New homes are everywhere. At Mallard Landing, streets with names like Canvasback Lane and Blue Heron Drive invoke what the shore used to be as they snake around townhouses that would look at home in Montgomery or Howard counties.

Horsey, who speaks with a strong Eastern Shore drawl and has never lived anywhere else, says he understands the concerns. In his door-to-door campaign for votes, he says, people mentioned their fears that the town was growing too quickly. But he says residents largely endorse his vision, and there has been no organized opposition at public hearings.

County officials "have got a point, they really do," Horsey says. "But [growth] brings in so many amenities - bowling alleys, shopping, movie theaters - all these things that really make a complete neighborhood."

To Cole, Denton is a hamlet teetering on the verge of becoming a sprawling Anytown. He looks at the government outposts taking up residence in the former groceries and pharmacy as lost tax revenue opportunities.

He looks at the 10-gas pump Arby's and notes that it siphoned so much business from Cindy's General Store that Cindy's - which was always willing to donate food for Little League tournaments - is now closed.

Cole, who lived near Philadelphia and worked in the chemical industry before returning to Denton in the 1990s, says he's disappointed that neither community activists nor the state have addressed the growth.

A former downtown shop owner, Cole says that Denton's three shopping centers are nothing to brag about. One is half-empty, one has no retail, and the third has little more than a grocery - a store he fears could close if the town gets the Wal-Mart it wants.

And Cole doubts the nearly empty Best Western will lure tourists downtown - it's on Route 404, far from the town's center.

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