Tiny Conowingo cottages must face 21st-century standards

Exelon has leased land for cottages since 1930, but review means costly upgrades, difficult choices for families

  • Amber Marcum takes her nephew, Kavi Singla, to swim in Broad Creek. Longtime cottage owners in Darlington are being forced to make costly improvements to their cottages in order to comply with Harford's zoning and code requirements. The Marcums family has recently spent 20,000 dollars on improvements on one cottage, which was already in fairly good condition. Other cottage owners, many of them retirees, cannot afford the costs of upgrading their cottages. Several cottages are already abandoned and will be demolished soon without being replaced.
Amber Marcum takes her nephew, Kavi Singla, to swim in Broad… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gabe…)
July 16, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Peg Niland's father did not let the lack of a road stop him from building a summer cabin 64 years ago. When the Conowingo Power Co. made lots available for nominal leases in northern Harford County, he chose one on Broad Creek, had lumber tossed from a nearby bridge and then towed it downstream behind his boat.

Niland and her adult children still return every spring to that rustic cabin, the oldest among the remaining 158 seasonal homes that line the Susquehanna River and its creeks just north of the Conowingo Dam. She and her neighbors all still pay the annual ground rent on the parcels to Exelon Generation Co., the successor to the utility that built the hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River.

But the 21st century has caught up to this isolated enclave. Exelon is surveying all 6,000 acres it owns surrounding the dam in preparation for a broad federal regulatory review, which requires inspection of the Harford cottages as well as nearly 250 other cabins in southern Pennsylvania. Many cabins need costly upgrades, everything from new wells and septic systems to safety railings and emergency exits. In most cases, estimates for repairs far exceed $20,000.

The ground rent for the cottages has grown to $2,000 annually — up from $1 a year when the leases began — but the promise of idyllic summers justifies the expense. The hefty renovation bills, however, have led some to question whether they can still afford the luxury of a second home.

"I would sell my house in Bel Air before I would give up this cottage," said Audrey Morrison, who has been skiing, swimming and boating on the river for most of her 70 years. She framed the original lease her father signed more than 60 years ago.

The cost of environmental, structural and safety upgrades, required by the county and the landowner, could prove too costly, especially since the cabins must remain summer homes, a luxury that fewer and fewer people can afford.

"There will be many cabin owners, many of them retirees, who can't afford to improve," Niland said. "Some will have to walk away from the leases."

Niland, who is director of the Harford Land Trust, a preservation group, has the bill of sale for the well her parents installed, but cannot find any record of the permit. For now, she cannot use the water and may have to drill another well.

"We just can't commit until we know the cost," she said. "There is a great deal of angst about all of this for all of us."

Exelon has completed exterior inspections on the cabins, paying consultants about $3,000 for each review, and is starting to look at the interiors.

The Exelon leases stipulate that the homes must remain shuttered from November through March 1. The leases also require cottage owners to comply with all environmental regulations, zoning standards and building codes. Residents cannot dig wells, install septic systems or expand homes without permission from the county.

"This land was originally offered as a recreational opportunity for the community," said Vicky Will, Exelon's vice president for regulatory, environmental and safety issues. "We lease the land with restrictions, most notably that they be seasonal homes. Over the years, we have trusted the lessees to get all permits for any improvements."

Owners cannot sell the cabins and transfer the leases without making the upgrades. Those who abandon derelict structures must pay to raze them and restore the grounds to a natural state. Exelon will then discontinue the lease and the lot will remain empty.

The original utility company made small lots — 50 by 100 feet — available to the community for fishing, hiking and other recreational pursuits more than 80 years ago, when the hydroelectric dam opened on the river.

Many cabins began as primitive fishing shacks that residents helped each other build. Some were only reachable by boat or by long treks from the closest road. People made do with oil lamps, outhouses and water carried from nearby streams.

"They started as really basic shelters, but they kept progressing," said Morrison. "The cottages started evolving and getting better."

If she stays, Morrison will need a new septic tank and a safer walkway. After decades on the river, she said, she may have to abandon a cabin filled with memories of her childhood and her children's. The water skis she made with her father hang on the patio wall, and photos of family gatherings decorate the modest two-bedroom house.

Many cottages have remained in the same family for generations, but others have been sold and the leases transferred. Terry Hanley, aBel Air town commissioner, purchased his four-bedroom cabin about a decade ago.

"This is one of Harford County's best-kept secrets," he said. "All of us want to comply with the regulations and minimize our impact on the environment."

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