Fears for the farm life

A 3,200-home plan billed as a boon for Cambridge is opposed by residents who foresee loss of rural character


CAMBRIDGE -- Jeff Edgar grew up trapping snapping turtles in the black-tinted water at the edge of his family's more than century-old farm, selling the meat in town for 50 cents a pound. The men in the Edgar family - including 5-year-old Tyler - still go deer and duck hunting together on the marshy cornfields they've farmed for six generations, back to 1885.

But now Edgar and other farmers in this scenic landscape near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge are worried that their rural lifestyles and distinctive Eastern Shore traditions will be destroyed by a proposed $1 billion development.

The Blackwater Resort would be just west of the Edgars' white clapboard farmhouse, bringing 3,200 homes, a conference center, a retail complex, and golf and tennis courts to what are now 1,080 acres of open fields.

"Our rural life will soon be gone," said Edgar, 39, standing amid a tuft of swaying reeds on the banks of the Little Blackwater River. "This will change our history forever."

The project has been promoted by local officials as an economic bonanza that would almost double the size of Cambridge, a struggling city where the population has dwindled. The developer would pay more than $14 million in taxes and fees to the city and create at least 150 jobs in the conference center, golf clubhouse and stores, according to the proposal. Local officials have asked him to make some modest revisions to the plan before submitting it for final council approval.

But to farming families, the suburban-style cul-de-sacs would be an invasion of the hunting and agricultural economy that has given their lives meaning for generations. Some warn that sprawl threatens Dorchester County farming, the county's largest industry, which brings in at least $80 million a year.

The Dorchester County Farm Bureau, a trade organization of local farmers, is staunchly opposed to the Blackwater project, a position reached after an overwhelming vote by members, said Brinsfield Lowe, president of the group. In a letter to county and city officials, Lowe called the development a "betrayal to all those who have made this county what it is today."

"So many families have already been forced out" of farming, Lowe said in an interview. "This is going to be a real headache." Farmers already feel they are being driven off their farms by low grain prices and high costs for fuel and equipment.

Lowe said he's worried that consuming more than 1,000 acres of farmland for the Blackwater Resort might prove to be the tipping point for several surrounding farms.

Suburbanites moving into the cul-de-sacs will complain about the odor of hogs and manure and the sound of shotguns, Lowe predicted. The newcomers will trespass in fields, and their traffic jams will make it hard to move large farm equipment, he said.

About 350 farms remain in Dorchester County, down from 500 in 1959. But agriculture, especially chicken farming and raising grain for poultry feed, continues to be the largest sector of the county's economy, said Betsy Gallagher, an educator with the Dorchester County Extension Service of the University of Maryland.

The low-lying fields targeted for construction were owned for years by W. Henry Thomas, a state delegate from 1975 to 1982 who still lives in Cambridge. He once ran a grain and fertilizer business, renting his farmland to tenants.

In 2004, Thomas transferred ownership of the property to a limited partnership, according to land records. His son, Edward Thomas, said his father sold the land to the developer, Duane E. Zentgraf, for reasons he and his father don't want to discuss.

Zentgraf, a former Baltimore-area resident, now lives about two miles west of the development site in a large waterfront home. He and his attorney, William "Sandy" McAllister, declined to comment for this article.

W. Henry Thomas was a friend and colleague of state Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., a legend on the Eastern Shore who served in the legislature for 48 years. The main bridge into Cambridge is named after the senator. The senator's widow, Margaret, and daughter, Betsy Malkus Evans, live just down Egypt Road from the development site. Both said they are upset about the project and that Senator Malkus, too, would have opposed it.

"When I was a child, my father used to take me down to the Little Blackwater, and we'd find arrowheads down there," said Evans, 46. "It's very peaceful and pastoral. My father would never be in favor of all this development."

Many local farmers grumble that Thomas sold out for such a large development. But a few defended his right to sell. "If a farmer wants to retire, he should have the right to sell the land to anyone he wants to, and to the highest bidder," said Bill Lindner Jr., 50, who lives south of the Thomas property. "That's his right."

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