Aging town on cusp of change

Annexation vote could revive Snow Hill or wreck its small-town identity


SNOW HILL -- These days, when Gus Payne gazes out the front window of the hardware store he established in this Eastern Shore county seat 54 years ago, he figures he's looking at the last chance for reviving his hometown and its downtown business district.

At 79, Payne has outlasted pretty much every other shopkeeper, pampering customers old and new with courtesy and personal service. But he says that's not enough: A lot more folks need to come into the store if he's to stay in business. He is among those who think Snow Hill will die unless more people live here.

He is buoyed by the green-and-white campaign signs that have begun popping up like spring daffodils, staked on the lawns of historic Victorians and Federal-style homes and plastered across storefronts, urging voters in this town of 2,500 to approve an annexation that boosters and opponents alike say would forever alter the 320-year-old Worcester County community.

At issue is a referendum tomorrow on whether to annex 1,000 acres, an expanse of soybean and cornfields just south of town, where a developer wants to put 2,170 houses over the next decade. It would double or triple Snow Hill's population.

"This town has been declining since the '40s or the '50s," says Payne, whose daughter and granddaughters help run his Western Auto store. "Change isn't easy, but we've got to have it. If Snow Hill is going to survive, we've got to have more people, we've got to have more businesses."

The Town Council unanimously approved the annexation in December. But opponents forced a referendum on the plan, saying they are worried that more people will inevitably mean higher taxes, clogged roads and crowded schools.

More important, critics argue, is the loss of small-town identity a big new development might foster. They say it would dwarf Snow Hill, which was chartered in 1686 and now has about 950 houses and 1,335 registered voters.

Dennis Klingenberg, a Baltimore County native who bought a small farm 15 years ago near the site, says town leaders and the business community have turned a blind eye to obvious flaws in the plan.

"There's such a thing as sensible growth, but this is anything but sensible," says Klingenberg, who can't cast a ballot tomorrow because he lives outside of town.

"You do the math - 900-plus homes in Snow Hill, and they want to add 2,170 over the next 10 years," Klingenberg says. "There's not a place in the country where mom-and-pop downtown businesses were helped by a huge thing like this."

If voters approve, the annexation would clear the way for a "neo-traditional" development called Summerfield, a back-to-the-future project that would feature homes with porches in the front, garages in the back and a neighborhood design that encourages walking. Summerfield was designed in part by the nationally known firm that planned Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands in Montgomery County.

The developer, Ocean City businessman Mark Odachowski, has promised an array of benefits and amenities for Snow Hill, including a $12 million waste treatment system to replace the town's inadequate 40-year-old sewage plant. He has pledged another $3 million to build a water storage tower and new wells for the town.

Supporters of his plan say the anti-development coalition - Concerned Citizens of Worcester County - has stirred fears unnecessarily.

Larry and Suzanne Knudsen, natives of New York and New Jersey who bought a riverfront bed-and-breakfast 15 years ago, say they're confident that new growth will fit comfortably with the small-town ambience they've come to love. With other investors, they've bought a 10-acre riverfront tract they hope to develop without affecting the chocolate-colored water of the Pocomoke.

"This has been a great life for us," says Larry Knudsen. "Even if the population goes to 5,000 [or] 7,000 in the next 15 years, that's still a small town by anybody's standard. But we'll have more amenities than you can support with 2,500 people. There's going to be a little turmoil when you're on the cusp of change."

He and other annexation supporters say the old downtown, made up mostly of brick office buildings and storefronts from the late 1800s, has seen a handful of new business in recent months, a bookstore and an art gallery among them.

But two buildings directly across Market Street from the county courthouse and administration building sit vacant, as do others in the three-block town center where government and the courts remain the biggest employers.

Mayor Stephen Mathews, who gets credit for revamping the town's building code and creating a historic district during his six years in office, acknowledges that the size of the proposed annexation gave him pause. In the end, he and the council decided that one large project would be better than piecemeal development.

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