Small town hopes to avoid McMansion development

Vienna tries to plan growth


VIENNA -- As Mayor Russell Brinsfield sees it, his tiny hometown on the banks of the Nanticoke River has two choices -- cookie-cutter McMansions on 20-acre lots or a carefully planned addition that reflects Vienna's rural character and history.

Either way, as development surges all across Maryland's Eastern Shore, Brinsfield does not believe that standing still is an option for his 280 constituents. He figures developers will inevitably take over the grain fields outside the town, which celebrates its 300th anniversary this weekend.

So Brinsfield is nudging Vienna toward annexing nearly 400 acres of adjacent farmland that eventually would become a community of 300 homes designed to the town's approval, tripling Vienna's population.

"I see what's happening in other parts of the Shore, and I think we can do better -- do something that protects that special sense of place and our quality of life, instead of just reacting to developers," says Brinsfield, 61. "I think this gives us the chance to control our own destiny. The Shore is changing so fast, maybe we can get ahead of the curve."

A preliminary plan envisions houses designed to match the white clapboard homes in the older part of Vienna, linking new and old in a seamless extension of streets that were first laid out when the town got its charter in 1706. New neighborhoods and old would be centered on a new town square with a new Town Hall building, Brinsfield says.

Supporters say Vienna's project is classic smart growth -- a carefully planned cluster of neighborhoods linked to water and sewer and other services instead of new homes scattered across scarce rural farmland on wells and septic systems.

"We see Vienna as a model of how conservation and growth could actually go hand-in-hand," says Erik Meyers, a vice-president of the Washington-based Conservation Fund.

But skeptics fear the new development would eventually dwarf the historic town that was a large American Indian village when Capt. John Smith was exploring the Nanticoke from Jamestown. They worry that, over time, a burgeoning Vienna would draw more development just outside its borders.

"I can understand that Vienna needs to grow, but if they want this much, somebody's lost perspective about what a little town is," says William F. Outten Jr., a grain farmer who works part time at a nearby power plant. He hopes that his 18-month-old grandson will become the eighth generation in his family to farm his 475-acre spread.

Some critics are concerned that Vienna's desire for small-scale commercial development -- a grocery, a pharmacy and a dry cleaner, perhaps -- might unintentionally bring larger businesses. The town has two restaurants, a service station, a bank branch and a convenience store. Cambridge and Salisbury are about 15 miles away.

Judith M. Stribling, a long-time environmental activist who is a biology professor at Salisbury University, says such groups as the Friends of the Nanticoke, of which she's a longtime member, are reserving judgment.

"One of our concerns is that you can't guarantee that farmland around the development will remain farmland," Stribling says. "I'm not convinced about this whole idea of the town needing a critical mass of 900 to 1,000 people to support businesses."

Mayor Brinsfield, with consulting help from the Conservation Fund, which has protected 140,000 acres of land in Maryland and millions more nationwide over the last 20 years, is leading Vienna toward a growth plan that advocates hope will be copied by other small towns.

"We have been impressed with the level of public involvement," Meyers says. "It hasn't been done behind closed doors with the mayor and council and a developer. This will fit with the vision the residents have for their town."

The nearly four-year effort started with a lot of listening, as townspeople crammed into the volunteer fire company hall for community sessions that encouraged them to describe how the town should grow and what they wanted it to look like.

They cobbled an elaborate wish list that laid the groundwork for Vienna's first comprehensive plan, approved by town officials in January. Later this month, they're ready to conduct a public seminar to hammer out design details. After three years of consideration, Brinsfield says it would be autumn before a Town Council vote on annexation.

The concept calls for neighborhoods clustered alongside a series of public trails and parks that would leave two-thirds of the 376-acre site undeveloped. Town officials are negotiating with Elm Street Development, a Northern Virginia company recommended by the Conservation Fund, Brinsfield says.

"Vienna is a work in progress, but people ought to be paying attention," says Edward T. McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who spent 14 years as a Smart Growth guru with the Conservation Fund.

"There's almost nothing being built on the Shore that looks like the Shore," McMahon adds. "If you're willing to accept off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter architecture, that's all you'll ever get."

But Stribling wonders if one flaw in the smart-growth mantra is the assumption that development can be contained within municipal growth areas.

"We're sort of presuming that there is a finite number of people coming here," she says. "Small towns have their own particular culture. If you add, 250 people, [or] 1,000, they change things. It's not the same place anymore."

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