Environment

Published — August 6, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

From Wye Island to Wye Mills: Suburban Maryland sprawls to the Eastern Shore

Introduction

James W. Rouse was an Eastern Shore boy, born and raised in Easton (pop. 14,000), the county seat of rural Talbot County.

Rouse’s hometown sits on the Chesapeake Bay side of Maryland’s Eastern Shore — the chunk of Maryland that, combined with Delaware and a bit of Virginia, droops down from the mainland between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

A lawyer by training, in 1939 Rouse joined a mortgage banking firm which morphed into The Rouse Company, the development company that made him famous for projects that transformed decaying downtowns into “festival marketplaces,” including Baltimore’s Harbor Place, Manhattan’s South Street Seaport and Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

In 1954, Rouse chose his hometown as the site for his first project, a shopping center called Talbottown. He intended this L-shaped brick plaza as a model of “urban infill” —today’s planning jargon for new development that naturally fits into an existing downtown area, easily accessible to pedestrians. (Today, Talbottown — home of a dozen shops, a handful of offices, and the upscale Rustic Inn restaurant — is the only shopping center of its kind in the area.)

From Talbottown, Rouse went on to achieve national prominence. In 1967, he unveiled the city of Columbia in Howard County — a so-called “new town” that had been built from scratch in an attempt to capture the small-town feel of a community like Easton, and today has a population of more than 98,000.

In 1973, Rouse announced plans to develop Wye Island, 2,800 acres of isolated farmland in Queen Anne’s County, about a 30-minute drive from where the Chesapeake Bay Bridge hits the Eastern Shore. Rouse’s idea was considered revolutionary by some. By others, repellent.

His concept was to respond to anticipated growth on the Eastern Shore by designing in ways with minimal impact on the land and the environment. Yet local sentiment was firmly opposed. His proposal failed and during the next 30 years, 115,609 acres of farm and forest — an area about half the size of all of Queen Anne’s County — would be plowed to make way for development.

One of the many variations on Rouse’s basic proposal featured 706 homes and 2,750 people clustered on roughly 12 percent of the island. The balance of the island’s area would have been dedicated to low density development, consisting of 184 lots ranging in size from 5 acres to 20-plus acres. But while he sought to heavily develop the island, Rouse went about it in a manner that was calculated to preserve the island’s rural character and limit harm to the environment. For example, Rouse would have severely restricted access to the water. Private piers would have been banned. A maximum of 20 motorboats would have been allowed, and 200 boat slips — no more — concentrated in one area. Today, such a proposal would be considered as green as you can get.

Rouse’s company sunk between $800,000 and $900,000 into the project. His proposal was so unusual that author Boyd Gibbons found enough material to write an entire book about it (Wye Island: The True Story of an American Community’s Struggle to Preserve Its Way of Life, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).

Rouse touted his development as a means of controlling what he and others anticipated would become unchecked sprawl. That same year, the state of Maryland completed a second parallel bridge across the bay, alongside the existing span built in 1952. Before 1952, the Eastern Shore was only accessible by boat or ferry, or by car or train from the north. Vehicles made about 1.1 million trips across the bridge in that first year — by 2007 that number would reach an estimated 27 million.

The 1973 bridge made an isolated area even more accessible to the mainland and served as a harbinger of ever-escalating future development. Residents of Queen Anne’s County were especially sensitive to this prospect, since Kent Island, the gateway to the Eastern Shore, took the brunt of the real estate speculation and waterfront construction that had followed the first bridge.

By 1960, Kent Island had been carved into 4,681 little lots by Dave Nichols, a state roads commissioner who, with a few associates and a little insider knowledge, bought up and subdivided much of the island before anyone understood what was happening. Planning and zoning were alien concepts in the Queen Anne’s County of the 1950s. To subdivide a parcel all a developer needed was a surveyor.

“Several guys ran around and cut as many of the farms up and went down to the courthouse and deeded them. We’re still paying for that today,” says County Commissioner Gene Ransom. “If you look on Kent Island, you’ve got thousands of deeded lots of record that don’t [pass percolation tests], but if they got sewer would be buildable. . . . [On southern Kent Island] — there’s probably 1,600 deeded lots that could be built one day. It’s a real problem.”

“There was no review process. There was no planning office in Queen Anne’s County at that time,” says John Nickerson, director of environmental health for the Queen Anne’s County Health Department. “The health department had no review process for adequacy of water and sewer.”

The so-called Nichols era left a nasty mark that is still apparent today as the county’s 46,571 residents struggle to deal with failing septic tanks and pollution of the waters on and around the southern end of the island. Nickerson is one of the main proponents of a plan to extend county sewer lines to an area that was developed half a century ago by Nichols and his associates, who didn’t place much emphasis on adequate sewage disposal. Some of these septic systems, installed in areas with a high water table that flood routinely, would never be allowed today, according to Nickerson.

By 1973, however, many in Queen Anne’s County were wary of any development at all. To them, Rouse’s vision was more like a hallucination. The first zoning regulations became law in 1964. Many were content to have all future growth fit this pattern, and to them Rouse’s Wye Island proposal might as well have depicted a lunar city made of green cheese.

Rouse, faced with opposition and hostility as well as a housing market on the skids, pulled out of Wye Island in 1974. He predicted that development would sprawl across the county. That’s exactly what happened.

But not on Wye Island, which was never developed. The state of Maryland stepped in, bought most of the island, and turned 2,450 acres of the 2,800-acre island into a wildlife preserve. This purchase was a major coup for a new state initiative called Program Open Space, founded in 1969 to preserve rural areas.

Battle for Kent Island

The Queen Anne’s Conservation Association was formed in 1970 in opposition to a proposed nuclear power plant on the Corsica River. The power plant proposal tanked, but the conservation group survived. The association grew over the next three decades until, in 2007, the organization brought in $264,765 and spent $120,553 of that fighting K. Hovnanian Homes, which describes itself as one of the nation’s top ten residential developers.

Today Richard Altman is the salaried executive director of the association, but back in the early 1970s, Altman was a young designer working for Rouse on the Wye Island proposal.

Altman, a vocal and ubiquitous opponent of sprawl in the county, argues that the county missed an important opportunity with Wye Island, because this proposal could have set an important precedent for all future development. For one thing, it would have concentrated residents into a new community around a built-in commercial area, unlike the so-called “cornfield villages” that have sprouted across the county since then.

“Wye Island was very near and dear to Jim Rouse’s heart because he grew up in Easton and [he and his family] all had a great affinity for the Eastern Shore and the pattern of development that they knew from their childhood,” Altman says. Rouse died in 1996. “The aspiration of Wye Island was really to replicate that but in a modern, very environmentally responsible way.”

After Wye Island, 25 years went by before another mega-project was proposed — the age-restricted Four Seasons at Kent Island, officially brought forward in 1999 by K. Hovnanian, which has built similar “active adult living” communities in 10 other states. This project, too, would draw considerable statewide attention, and the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association would prove instrumental in the fight against it.

Like Rouse’s Wye Island, Four Seasons would be concentrated right on the water. The current proposal includes 1,350 homes, a relatively modest proposal compared to the previous owner of the property who sought to build a 1,400-unit retirement community as well as 200 townhouses, a 150-unit care center, 100-unit assisted living community, 80 private lots and a day care center. The Four Seasons proposal has spawned 15 lawsuits, and the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association is a party to many of them. Several of these cases hinge on one another, and right now the county and the developer are waiting for a decision from the state’s Supreme Court on a case involving an esoteric mapping issue before it becomes clear if Four Seasons can ever be built.

Four Seasons, and the reaction against it, brought about a shift in the balance of power in Queen Anne’s County. A vocal and irate group of residents, eventually coalescing into the Kent Island Defense League, vigorously fought the development. But the county’s three commissioners had become staunch advocates of the project — to the point that they were instrumental in giving the project 20 percent of the county’s Critical Area growth allocation (a set amount of waterfront acreage where the state allows development). Next they signed a developer’s rights and responsibilities agreement that contractually bound the county to the proposal, regardless of what future commissioners or residents might think about it.

“We felt that our hands had been basically tied,” says former Commissioner Joseph Cupani, a Republican who succeeded them.

These three commissioners had become so unpopular because of their stance on development, in particular the Four Seasons proposal, that in 2002 they were trounced in their own primaries. As lame ducks, they then voted in favor of the agreement with K. Hovnanian. Commissioner George O’Donnell insists that he and the other commissioners were acting in the best interests of the county. The agreement bound K. Hovnanian to pay for a new sewer treatment plant and road improvements and $1 million to the county coffers.

“We wanted to finish up business that we were responsible for,” he says. This move, however, enraged many, including the four Republicans and one Democrat who had just been elected (the commission expanded to five members in 2002). They publicly begged the outgoing commissioners to leave the agreement unsigned. “We asked them not to sign it, and they signed it anyway,” said Cupani.

Once in office, four of the new commissioners ordered the planning staff to stop processing applications related to Four Seasons.

“[Commissioners] Cupani, Cassell, Koval, and myself all felt like this [agreement] wasn’t right, and we were going to try to undo it,” says Democrat Gene Ransom, now in his second term as commissioner. “[Commissioner] ‘Nemo’ Niedomanski was not really in favor of doing this . . . but the rest of the board all decided we wanted to do what we could to try to stop it. . . . We tried to fight it. It didn’t go well. You can look at the court records and see what happened.”

What happened was simple: K. Hovnanian sued the commissioners, and won. In September 2003, Queen Anne’s County Circuit Court Judge John Sause ruled that the agreement was a binding contract. Three commissioners, in order to prevent another round of potentially costly litigation, then signed a settlement agreement in which they acknowledged the validity of the contract and pledged to adhere to it.

In 2006, county voters, angered by the failure of the commissioners to stop the Four Seasons project, tossed out the 4-1 Republican majority in favor of a 4-1 Democratic majority. Again, growth proved to be the major issue in this election, and the Four Seasons still signified overdevelopment to the anti-growth community. Anyone who became associated, rightly or wrongly, with unfettered development was then equated with the project. This, of course, was the political kiss of death, says Cupani, who learned this the hard way in his losing 2006 reelection bid. Cupani insists that he tried to maintain a neutral attitude toward development, but he says he was defeated largely because of the political clout of the people who had originally mobilized against Four Seasons.

“That group was so strong that within one week they could have a direct mailer to every citizen in Queen Anne’s County,” he says.

Sudden growth

Rouse signed his option on Wye Island in 1973. The Queen Anne’s County commissioners signed the Four Seasons contract with K. Hovnanian in 2002. In the three decades between those two events, the Eastern Shore lost 44,501 acres of farmland and 71,108 acres of forest to development, according to the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP).

“During the last century, the Eastern Shore’s population and household growth changed significantly,” according to A Shore for Tomorrow, a report published by the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) this past March. “From 1900 to 1950, population growth was relatively stagnant, increasing by only 7.5 percent. In 1952, however, the completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge provided easy access to the Shore, generating the population boom that continues today. By 2000 the population had nearly doubled to 395,903 — an increase of 88 percent since 1950.

While 88 percent growth in 50 years is, in fact, slow by most standards, for the Eastern Shore it is fairly dramatic.

The nine counties of the Eastern Shore, while always nominally a part of Maryland, have long comprised practically their own cultural and economic region — largely populated by watermen, farmers, cannery workers, and landed gentry. Historically, the few outsiders living here were the wealthy, who bought antebellum waterfront plantations as second homes.

But the bridges brought change and development, a trend that shows no sign of slowing in the 21st century, despite the current housing market crunch. MDP projects an additional 160,000 people will move here over the next 25 years. Queen Anne’s County, the closest Eastern Shore county to Anne Arundel County, Annapolis, and mainland civilization, is likely to see much of the growth.

For example, the draft comprehensive plan for the town of Sudlersville (pop. 397) anticipates 318 new homes by 2020, despite a failing, antiquated sewage treatment plant, which the town seeks to have replaced at the developers’ expense. And Wye Mills, a town that straddles the Queen Anne’s-Talbot county line, has been targeted for two years by county officials for significant business development.

Growth is evident all over the Shore, and particularly in the Mid-Shore region, which includes Caroline, Dorchester, and Talbot counties. In Caroline County, the 209 residents of Goldsboro are looking at 500 new homes, and Denton, the county seat, will soon absorb a 3,000-unit development into a town of 3,552 people. And in Dorchester County, a casual drive along Route 16 south of Cambridge further illustrates the point: Hundreds of acres of farmland and forest have been plowed under for the next wave of construction.

To some — realtor Camille O’Donnell for one — growth is a sign of progress. O’Donnell, wife of former Queen Anne’s County Commissioner George O’Donnell (1990-1998), wants to see growth that will bring jobs to the Shore. The most vocal opponents of growth, she notes, are non-natives.

Regarding opposition to a recent commercial development proposal, O’Donnell wrote on her blog: “I just can’t seem to understand why the people who talk the loudest and complain the most are the ones who don’t understand they ARE part of the problem. They don’t understand that by moving over here . . . they added to the traffic problem, . . . they helped add to the pollution in QAC [Queen Anne’s County] waterways, and so on. Could it be that these people live under the adage, ‘Now that I am here, I don’t want anybody else moving here’?”

In Talbot County, bulldozers have partially cleared land near the town of Trappe (pop. 1,181) for a development of more than 2,500 new homes. Easton’s lone Starbucks was joined by three new clones in the past six months. One of these Starbucks is inside a brand-new Target department store, in the same shopping complex as another brand-new freestanding Starbucks (although this one was recently slated for closure just months after it opened). Another Starbucks, with a drive-through window, sits along Route 50 — easily accessible by beach-bound motorists.

Starbucks may be a symbol of the homogenized suburban sprawl that environmentalists loathe, but the rapid sprouting of so many of these coffee shops does not necessarily mean that the “Pave the Bay” mentality has conquered the Shore.

The current housing market crunch has slowed development to a crawl. In Talbot County, for example, the proposed development in Trappe has floated in limbo for more than a year; the bulldozers that had begun to demolish the remains of Big Mario’s mini-golf course — the gateway to the future development — never finished the job. The opponents of rampant development on the Shore, meanwhile, are gathering steam, and have powerful friends in Annapolis.

A subtle yet significant sign of this shift came May 21, when MDP announced that its one-man Centreville office would close and that it would terminate its Critical Area circuit rider program, in which a state planner went from town to town helping officials grapple with land use issues and development plans. On July 17, Mark Gradecak — the planner who ran this regional office — drove to Baltimore to announce his intention to resign.

While the state has no plans to replace Gradecak at this time, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the Shore’s rural heritage and opposing unchecked growth, plans to hire a planning expert. (The program is funded by a grant from The Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, a Towson-based non-profit that also provides funding for The Center for Public Integrity’sLand Use Accountability Project.) This circuit rider will travel the Shore from town to town offering planning advice “in partnership with the [state] Department of Planning,” according to the job description.

The immediate suspicion this announcement generated in the development community is that the state was sending a clear signal: While Annapolis may be unwilling or unable to fight directly against sprawl, it is willing to turn over that responsibility to an organization that stands firmly in opposition to unchecked development.

Yet, the influx of 160,000 people anticipated in the MDP report will have to go somewhere, and the next few years are likely to prove critical in determining how future development is handled – whether it reflects Rouse’s vision for protecting the community’s environment and heritage or results in uncoordinated sprawl.

Center for Public Integrity intern Justin Butler provided assistance reporting this story.

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