Shore pace in peril

Plan for commercial and home development has historic hamlet on edge


WYE MILLS -- It used to be that Sue Riggleman knew nearly everybody here, the maybe 150 to 200 people in this Colonial-era village just a mile or so from the beach-bound tourists and commuters zooming along U.S. 50.

Riggleman, 70, has spent 31 years behind the counter of the Wye Mills Market. But with newcomers moving into the big houses rising on the former soybean fields at the edge of the unincorporated hamlet, remembering names has gotten a whole lot harder. Besides, Riggleman says, most of the new arrivals don't shop at the store.

"It really seems like people from Kent Island, Centreville, all over, are just moving this way, moving in our direction," says Riggleman. "Somebody's got to start thinking about how many people and how much traffic, especially with all that's being talked about."

Rapid-fire residential growth has always stirred emotions, but these days her customers are talking about plans for commercial development - a proposal to make the nearby community college the focal point for a new business park, offices, light manufacturing and warehouses - as well as for apartments and houses.

The plans would inevitably alter this little enclave of unassuming frame homes and ranchers, a place that so far has maintained its slow-paced routines, despite being just 15 miles from the Bay Bridge.

"Everybody needs a place to live, but there's no reason why we have to become New York City," says John Corder, a retired union carpenter who moved here from Annapolis about 15 years ago. "I'm afraid more and more people are going to ruin it."

Regulars like Corder make the market a hub, stopping to take a seat on scuffed wooden benches (built by Walter Miles Sr. back in the 1930s) and shoot the breeze before checking the mail at the post office next door. The market's ham biscuits, cheese steaks, subs and sandwiches draw a crowd at lunchtime.

Visitors come in for a cold drink after seeing the village's historic sites, including the Old Wye Mill, which has been grinding flour (twice a month now) since 1680, Old Wye Church, circa 1721, and the remains of the 460-year-old Wye Oak, which collapsed four summers ago during a thunderstorm.

Riggleman and her husband, Dwight, 69, say business has remained steady in the past few years, but few of the newcomers seem to drop by. Perhaps they prefer the gleaming, multi-pump, gas-and-go convenience store that opened this summer at the clogged U.S. 50 and Route 213 interchange.

Now, there's an ambitious plan to create a 700-acre business and residential district just outside Wye Mills, focused on Chesapeake College, the 170-acre community college that serves the five counties of the upper Eastern Shore.

The idea, supporters say, is to pair the 41-year-old school, whose distinctive modern design is a landmark at the U.S. 50-Route 213 interchange, with a light-industrial and office park that could provide the region with much-needed jobs.

Another parcel would be designated for apartments, townhouses and detached homes, development that supporters say would help fill a need for affordable housing.

The proposals, now under review by Queen Anne's County planning officials, have been wholeheartedly endorsed by leaders at Chesapeake College and many in the county's business community, who have contemplated the employment training possibilities for years.

"This is a long-standing concept we've talked about numerous times," says Stuart Bounds, the college president. "We take very seriously our role in preserving the heritage of the community around us, but we can't just be a museum. The Shore needs jobs."

Many of the new arrivals who have snapped up about half of the 67 homes at The Preserve at Wye Mills, houses priced at $500,000 or more, say that commuting across the bay is the price they pay for getting more house for their money in a tranquil setting surrounded by farm fields. Not surprisingly, they are wary of more development.

"Our community is only 60-some homes, so I don't see we're making that much impact," says Matthew Watson, 26, who drives about an hour each way to the marine service company he owns in southern Anne Arundel County. "I would not want to see any businesses that would draw more traffic."

Community leaders in Wye Mills, which is split down the middle between Talbot and Queen Anne's counties, say they'll put up a fight against the development proposals, which would inevitably bring more traffic and, they fear, add pollution at the headwaters of the Wye River.

Mary Ann Roe Massey, 76, has lived her whole life in the village. Born here during the Depression, she was married at Old Wye Church, worked for 25 years as postmaster and was an unofficial mayor of her unincorporated hometown. She's even bought her burial plot and headstone at the church, which she has attended since she was a child.

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