In Worcester, an auction bonanza

April 27, 2006|By CHRIS GUY | CHRIS GUY,SUN REPORTER

OCEAN CITY -- Forty years ago, the owner of nearly 340 acres of woods, marsh and fields just across Assawoman Bay from this bustling beach resort decreed that the land should be spared from development until the last farmer working the corn and soybean fields had died.

That time has come.

The waterfront property that seems a little like Brigadoon and overlooks the Route 90 bridge is to be auctioned Saturday on behalf of three beneficiaries, all local churches. Developers are practically swooning. Out-of-state investors are swooping into the tiny airport here in chartered jets and private planes for a look-see.

But government planners say tough conservation standards and zoning restrictions placed on the site by the state's critical area rules and the just-completed Worcester County comprehensive plan could force any investor to wait years before moving ahead, at least with large-scale projects.

"This kind of property is probably going to go to someone who can carry it for the long haul, definitely buying on speculation," said Doug Marshall Jr., the Eastern Shore auctioneer who will conduct the sale Saturday afternoon. "But facts are facts. It has a couple miles of waterfront and it's directly across from Ocean City."

Marshall says the property could fetch $18,000 to $30,000 an acre, bringing in $6 million to $10 million for the three churches - St. Paul by the Sea in Ocean City, Zion Church in Bishopville and Salem United Church, just across the border in Selbyville, Del.

It's hard to know, however.

"It's like finding a Monet or a Picasso in your attic," Marshall said. "There are no comparables. You don't have an idea what it's worth."

One parcel, a 91-acre tract that is adjacent to the Lighthouse Sound Golf Course and has spectacular views of the resort's skyline, will be auctioned separately from two nearby farms that total 247 acres, including more than a mile of waterfront along the St. Martin River, he said.

The land was owned for decades by John G. Townsend III, the son of a former Delaware governor. When Townsend died in 1966, his wife, Daisy Townsend, gave the property to the three churches with the caveat that the farmer who worked the flat sandy fields would be allowed to continue as long as he lived. He died last year. The rest of the property is mostly forest and marshes.

"You really don't find many pieces of land like these any more," said Kenneth Carter, a member of the church council at Salem United. "Whatever it brings at auction, I'll be happy because it's a gift from God for the churches."

Diane Savich, a longtime parishioner at St. Paul by the Sea, says it's too soon to say what the congregation might do with the money. "It was a lovely gift and our church is appreciative," she said. "But there is no way of telling how much it will bring, so we're looking at it conservatively."

Some environmentalists worry that any new development could degrade water quality in Assawoman Bay and the St. Martin River, which is listed as an impaired waterway. They are hoping environmental laws and restrictions will keep development in check.

Most of the larger parcel lies within 1,000 feet of the shoreline, which the state considers a "critical area." Development on such waterfront sites is limited to one unit per 20 acres. Without public water and sewer service, each lot would have to pass percolation tests for private septic systems.

The 91-acre tract that fronts on Assawoman Bay is zoned for residential use, but without water and sewer service, it is an unlikely site for intense residential development, said Jack Burbage, a Worcester County developer who owns an adjacent farm.

"I've looked at it extensively, and we do have an interest," Burbage said. "It's beautiful land, and it has wonderful potential. But anybody who buys it really needs to do their homework."

Despite the interest the auction has generated, Carolyn Cummins, chairwoman of Worcester's planning commission, sees another obstacle for any proposal - neither tract was designated as a growth area in the recently approved county comprehensive plan. The document will provide the rough outline that guides development for the next decade.

"It's just not good, developable land up there," Cummins said. "There's no water and sewer, and the GPS technology showed that a lot of that land won't work for septic systems." GPS is global positioning satellite.

Kate Hastings, executive director of the Lower Shore Land Trust, says she hopes much of the land will remain as it has for so long - undisturbed.

"With all the intense development occurring along the coastal bays, we need to protect the whole area or we're going to be looking at problems we can't turn around," Hastings said. "I think what we really need is a buyer with some sense of creative land use."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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