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Changing tides for residences along shoreline

Sun Staff

Since Debbie Allen bought her 943 square feet of paradise, she has watched 16 years of sunrises over the Chesapeake Bay and boats crawling past her window. She has also watched the homes around her get larger and larger.

If she is forced to sell because she can't find a way to repair the damage Tropical Storm Isabel inflicted on her small home, her Pasadena lot could become the site of the next waterfront mini-mansion.

Allen, 50, a widow with three children who teaches driver education, hasn't figured out how she can afford to rebuild.

"We're upper lower-class, lower middle-class," the Anne Arundel County resident says.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, people like the Allens - middle-income families with million-dollar views - have gradually been pushed from Anne Arundel County's 533-mile shoreline and Baltimore County's 175 miles. So have the quaint summer cottages that long defined the waterfront. In their place, larger and larger homes have sprouted.

Those who know the coast say Isabel's passing will accelerate that change. In Anne Arundel, it destroyed 72 homes and did major damage to 595 more. In Baltimore County more than 300 homes must be torn down, and hundreds more were damaged.

Most of the homes were small, old and on the shore.

Where those smaller homes disappear, larger residences perched atop stilts will take their place, real estate agents and community activists say.

In Bowleys Quarters overlooking Galloway Creek, Douglas and Shanon Zinn of Owings Mills owned a shore shack that they used as weekend getaways. That was before Isabel.

Now the Baltimore County couple have an empty waterfront lot and plans to build a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a loft.

"Isabel did the demolition for us," Shanon Zinn says.

Annapolis real estate agent Charlie Buckley has a joke he tells clients who complain about the million-dollar prices of run-down waterfront homes.

"I can tear down the house," he tells them, "but it will still cost you a million."

It wasn't so long ago that waterfront property wasn't so coveted. That's where watermen lived. They weren't upper-class, and they didn't own large homes.

That was before two modern amenities became common: homes with central air conditioning and boats made of fiberglass, making sailing affordable to the middle class, says Buckley, who trademarked his nickname, "Mr. Waterfront."

Real estate agents and longtime waterfront families disagree about what caused the area's first waterfront housing boom, but they agree that it was about 1970.

It happened "all of a sudden," says Severna Park Re/Max broker Rich Dobry, who began specializing in waterfront property in 1975.

New homes filled gaps between cottages and shore shacks. Homes lined nearly the entire coast.

About that time, building requirements started to change. Baltimore County adopted codes in the 1970s requiring anyone building within the state's flood plains - or making "substantial" repairs or renovations - to elevate the first floor above the "100-year flood" level. Anne Arundel adopted similar laws in 1974.

The desire for waterfront property intensified in the 1980s with Annapolis marketing itself as the "sailing capital." The state and counties improved the roads to the coast, expanding U.S. 50 and building Interstate 97.

With the shoreline built up, the only way newcomers could build was to raze homes and build new ones that met the new laws. In the process, the new arrivals created Maryland's distinctive eclectic shoreline.

"You still see a million-dollar home next to a sugar shack," says Mike Williams, whose family has lived on the water near Annapolis for six generations.

The trend toward waterfront mansions hit Anne Arundel first, real estate agents say, because of its proximity to Washington and Baltimore.

"It's happening in Baltimore County, too," says Dobry, a former chief executive officer of Coldwell Banker in Baltimore. "They're just a few years behind" Anne Arundel.

For three consecutive years, the biggest price increases have been for waterfront and high-priced homes, according to tax assessments released by the state.

Prices top $1 million

Over the past year, the average Annapolis-area waterfront home has sold for more than $1 million, says Connie Morrisette of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.

Residents whose homes were damaged by Isabel are waiting to hear what their insurance companies will pay them. Then they must decide whether to sell or keep, to rebuild or tear down.

And, if they rebuild, whether it will be the same size house or a bigger one.

Baltimore County has issued 1,200 building permits - about 60 a day - for repairs and reconstruction projects in the eastern part of the county, said Timothy M. Kotroco, the county director of permits and development management.

He says he has seen some plans to build the kinds of bigger homes that might be found along North Carolina's Outer Banks. Some others are going with modular homes, which can be built quickly.

"Even if they build the same size house, they're going to look nicer because they'll be newer," Kotroco says.

Buckley says he expects bigger houses. And many owners might sell, he says.

"Some of these people may find although their cottage got wiped out, their property is worth just as much," he says.

Tropical Storm Isabel hit the Baltimore area at midday Sept. 18. Early the next morning, a storm surge combined with high tide to send sea water rushing through coastal neighborhoods.

The storm hit older, smaller homes hardest. At the request of The Sun, Anne Arundel officials examined property records of a sampling of the homes hit hardest. Of 16 uninhabitable homes destroyed by causes other than falling trees, 15 were built in 1960 or earlier. Ten of those had been built by 1950.

Fourteen of the 16 were less than 2,000 square feet; 11 of those were less than 1,250 square feet.

The pattern of damage was evident in the Arundel on the Bay neighborhood south of Annapolis, where corporate executives live side-by-side with schoolteachers.

At the end of Narragansett Avenue, the storm destroyed three homes, a 1,400-square-foot cottage and a 1,100-square-foot bungalow, both built about 1930, and a 1,500-square-foot summer home built about 1900.

Inland, the first undamaged property on the street is a small home on stilts with blue siding. It was built in 1995 and sold that year for $275,000.

Brothers Greg and Gary Gosnell own the summer home, second from the end of the peninsula. Out the Gosnells' back door are the Chesapeake Bay and the bridge across it. Out their side window is Thomas Point Lighthouse. Behind their home is Thomas Point, where a 13-year-old, 3,700-square-foot home sold this year for $1.3 million.

The Gosnells' grandfather bought their home about 1930 as a summer cottage.

The brothers plan to rebuild, but it will be a different kind of home even if they manage to save the heart pine floors and a few doors. "If it's going to sit up on pilings, why try to make it rustic?" Gary Gosnell says.

Former fishing lodge

Greg Gosnell had contemplated for years whether to tear down and improve the house, which was a family fishing lodge. It had no indoor showers, no air conditioning and no heat.

"I would have hated," he says, "to be the guy who wrote a check to watch someone tear the place down."

Isabel made up his mind for him. The house is too tattered to keep.

Next door, Jackson Taylor plans to rebuild his 1930 cottage, but with an additional guest wing, he says.

Neither Greg Gosnell nor Taylor is sure what will come of the third house. Word is that it might go up for sale.

Whispers are spreading through neighborhoods that some people who can't afford to rebuild are leaving.

Signs of changes to come are posted on Baltimore County's east side, where contractor trucks, construction cranes and a few "For Sale" signs dot streets that were underwater a few weeks ago. The same goes for Bayside Beach in northern Anne Arundel County, where many must rebuild.

Turnover expected

"I'm not sure where people are going to get the money," says Steve Laplanche, past president of the neighborhood civic association. "I'm afraid there's going to be a turnover in the next two or three years."

Carlos Garcia has consulted a real estate agent about selling his 1,100-square-foot second home in Shady Side, in southern Anne Arundel. He bought it last year. Isabel ripped the decks from the house and wrecked the inside.

He paid about $350,000 and now thinks he could get nearly twice that. "I could probably build a fantastic four- or five-bedroom house" on the double lot, he says.

Near Annapolis at Oyster Harbor, which began about 40 years ago as a group of summer homes owned by African-Americans, racial diversity and a range of occupations are part of the community's charm, said Kathy Burk, president of the citizens association.

Many of the residents couldn't afford to buy their homes at current prices.

Residents wonder what will happen now that at least one home - a rental - has fallen into the water.

Assessment soars

That home was reassessed this year at $457,640, a jump from $271,130 three years ago. Most of that value is the land, according to state records.

The home had been falling into the water for years, Burk says. Though she isn't worried that her community might become a collection of mini-mansions - the lots are too small - she knows that a nicer home will be built on the land.

In one way, that could be good, she says. But she has reservations.

"Does that outweigh the devastation?" she asks. "Does that outweigh that a family's been displaced? Does that outweigh that the face of a community is going to change?"

Phyllis Anderson, the homeowner who rented out the property, says she will let the lot sit for a while, then decide what to do. If she rebuilds, it will have to be on stilts.

It's hard to argue, many residents say, that it's a bad idea to have stricter building guidelines to prevent destruction. But that doesn't mean the guidelines will be helpful for every family.

"It's a good thing," Dobry says, "if you can afford it."

Allen, the widow from Bayside Beach in Pasadena, says flood insurance covered her home up to $74,000 and its contents up to $11,000. She and her late husband bought the home in 1987 for $79,900.

Her husband, David, a construction foreman, died of cancer in January. She owes $47,000 on their mortgage, she says.

Money is a hurdle

She says she is going to rebuild but hasn't figured out how to pay for it.

"I'm not letting Isabel stop me," she says, but she adds that she won't believe it until it happens.

So much water poured into her house that the ducks on the wallpaper lining the top of her living room were swimming. Allen and her 15-year-old son, Jacob, are living in a motel. Her other two children, both older, are living with friends.

She describes the view from her front window as ever-changing. The clouds cluster, the ships pass, and the sun rises, all with the bay as the backdrop.

"If you have a bad day, all you have to do is look out your window," she says.

That window is boarded over.

Sun staff writer Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.

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