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Shore communities prepare for thousands of new homes
Star Democrat, Sunday, July 25, 2004

The flat oceans of soybeans are still, except for the clicking of a pesticide sprayer.  Behind the tree line a hundred yards away is the Little Blackwater River.  Pickup trucks rumble along the hot asphalt, their deivers slowing for spotted fawns that vault out of the woods as if they own that roadway.

Nothing about this quiet swath of Dorchester County farmland gives a hint of what’s to come – nothing except the name:  Egypt Road.  Egypt Road LLC is the name of a partnership that plans to turn this quiet rural landscape into a thriving resort community with 3,200 townhomes, individual homes, luxury estates, recreation centers and a golf course. *****Burt Says:  With this likely phenomenon in the works, an improvement for this city's mortgage industry may also be forthcoming.*****   It will mark massive growth for Cambridge, an old watermen’s town of 11,000 that has been described as the “caboose on the Eastern Shore train.”  While nearby Easton and Salisbury have long enjoyed the fruits of an improved economy, this town on the Choptank River has lagged behind.

In all, there are 6,000 new homes planned for Cambridge.  Once occupied, they would double the town’s population.  But Maryland’s largest county isn’t the only one on the Eastern Shore preparing for unprecedented development, local and state planning officials say.  The State Department of Planning doesn’t keep track of how many new homes are in the pipeline, but towns across Maryland’s peninsula annexed more than 6,000 acres over the past 2 years.  Annexation is a strong sign that a property is about to be developed officials say.

The rapid growth has incited bitter debate on the Eastern Shore between those who want to take advantage of the demand for new homes and those who favor developing in smaller slices.  “I don’t think it’s prudent to move ahead in such big chunks,” said Rob Etgen, director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.  “I think the cautious and conservative nature of the Eastern Shore is much more suited to taking it in small bites.”

Developers argue the Shore has waited long enough for the kind of attractive, high-end homes that dot Howard County and suburban Washington.  “After waiting decades for new investment and ideas, it’s hard to think of it as too much, too soon,” said Sandy McAllister, an attorney who represents Egypt Road LLC.  McAllister also helped persuade officials to approve Cambridge’s luxury Hyatt Regency resort.  The 400 room hotel, sprawled over a 260 acre campus, is expected to draw people to Cambridge and to throw the Mid-Shore housing boom into high gear.

“We’ve been saddled with the label of having great potential for most of my life,” said McAllister, a Cambridge native.  “I would like to utilize that potential now.”

In Caroline County, where the trademarked slogan is “She’s waiting for you,” there are 6,500 homes in the planning stages to be built over the next 20 years as towns add water and sewer lines to newly annexed lands.  That’s a lot,” said Betsey Krempasky, the county’s director of planning, especially when compared to the county’s traditional rate of growth, which is about 1500 homes per decade over the last 30 years.  “Some of the concerns are, Where is it going to stop?  How big does Denton really want to be?” Krempasky said, referring to the county seat of 3,000.  “That’s what everyone’s wary of.”

The challenge for Krempasky, and for planners across the Shore, is figuring out how to manage development while maintaining the quiet quality of life that is a part of the Shore’s identity.  “Where is the balance, to help communities keep the rural nature and small town character of our towns?” Krempasky asked.  “We don’t yet have the answer for Caroline County.”

The impending construction also raises concerns about how towns and sparsely populated counties will absorb the new communities.  Officials in Centreville, the seat of Queen Anne’s County, recently agreed to impose a building moratorium, after their sewage plant was found to be overloaded.

Bill Giese, a Dorchester County native who grew up on the Little Blackwater River, calls the pace of development “a runaway train.”  South of Egypt Road lies a 280 acre farm owned by Giese’s wife’s family.  Although the family has refused multiple offers to develop the property, Giese thinks eventually his family and others will be pushed off farms as tensions build between farmers and their new city neighbors.

Baby boomers nearing retirement, who are the intended occupants of the new homes may believe they want to live in a rural setting, Giese said.  But, he says, wait until they smell fertilizer, hear gunshots or get stuck behind a gigantic, slow-moving tractor on their way to the Bay Bridge.  “I don’t think we should have to change our way of life because they want to pack in here around us,” said his wife Elizabeth Giese, whose father bought the farm in 1958.

There’s not much county officials can do to halt or cap growth, planners say.  They can’t nix annexations and can resist them for only 5 years.  Instead, they’re choosing to cooperate with cities in an effort to compromise on rezoning the areas to be developed.  Developments such as Egypt Road are “exactly what the book says when you look up ‘planned growth’,” McAllister said.  “it’s not ‘ten acres, two houses, good luck’ said McAllister, who acknowledged that the pace of construction could be accelerated if the development is successful.

Indeed, there’s nothing about the new mega-developments that violates Maryland’s Smart Growth laws, Etgen said.  Annexing land for dense communities – and putting them on water and sewer lines – is what Smart Growth encourages, he said.  “But now when you see them, and you realize the scale of them, it’s clearly not a good thing.”  (mail to this address goes to all 5 Commissioners)

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