Bad day at Blackwater

August 27, 2006

If you're going to sell your soul, make sure you get a sweet deal, because you'll never get it back. That's the wisdom the Cambridge City Council should have taken to heart before it voted last week in favor of a billion-dollar resort community proposed for the southern edge of the Dorchester County town.

Cambridge is the jewel of the Choptank River, and that pretty river is the matriarch of all Eastern Shore waterways. But the town's once-substantial cachet - Annie Oakley, the Wild West Show sharpshooter, liked Cambridge so much that she retired there - has suffered through decades of hard economic times, lingering racial tension and, as if that weren't bad enough, derisive comparisons with Salisbury, its bustling neighbor to the south, and tony Easton to the north. Cambridge has been so desperate for a revival that it's not surprising it embraced developer Duane Zentgraf's plan to turn about 1,000 acres of farmland and wetlands into a complex of 2,700 homes, a golf course and a hotel and conference center.

In exchange for rolling out the welcome mat for the project, named Blackwater Resort, Cambridge anticipates receiving millions of dollars in much-needed new tax revenues. It could also see its population nearly double with the gradual influx of as many as 10,000 new residents.

There's still one major hurdle in the way of Blackwater Resort. The project needs approval of the state Critical Area Commission, which must decide whether the mega-development will harm the flora and fauna of nearby Little Blackwater River. The river feeds into the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and Mr. Zentgraf's foes, numbering in the thousands, have argued long, loud and legitimately that the project would threaten the important 28,000-acre sanctuary.

Perhaps more than any other Shore county, Dorchester exhibits a gritty independence and doesn't suffer outsiders preaching what's best for the folks who live there. So, it was only to be expected that the county's provincial state senator, Richard F. Colburn, ignoring the fact that the nearby refuge is not the county's property, told Blackwater Resort critics to mind their own business. The project's local lawyer derided opponents as "Birkenstock knuckleheads." Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should have shown concern for the Blackwater refuge - it is a source of pride for the entire state - but he shrugged off his responsibility and agreed that locals should decide the issue.

But here's the sad irony that appears to have eluded many in Cambridge: Who do they think will buy homes in the expensive resort? It won't be the locals, who may end up stuck in second-tier status as housekeepers and gardeners. If the resort homeowners are anything like their "come here" brethren around the Shore, many of them will become active in the affairs of their new hometown. Like good citizens, they will register to vote and attend council meetings. They'll eventually have so much clout that they'll determine the town's future, maybe even dumping council members like the four who approved the resort. Cambridge will never be the same.

And that's how a town sells its soul.

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