Primed for growth

In the heart of this Eastern Shore county seat, bells still peal in the clock tower, interrupted sometimes by the siren at the Goodwill Volunteer Fire Department. Stately Victorians line the streets surrounding the 200-year-old courthouse. Parking meters take nickels.

But drive a mile in either direction, and the town looks squeezed, hemmed in by new housing developments that have caused the population to swell by several hundred people, to 2,600. The two-lane highway through town, Route 213, carries bumper-to-bumper traffic at times. Down the road from Draper's, a store that sells shotgun shells as well as the best subs in town, local teenagers attend a high school that's running out of room for them.

After decades of standing still, Centreville is morphing from rural hamlet into outlying suburb. It was one of the first Eastern Shore towns to struggle with the pressures that come with growth, but it is no longer exceptional.

More than 50 years after a ceremonial caravan of dignitaries opened the Bay Bridge, ushering in a first wave of growth here, a second - much bigger - wave is coming.

Nearly every farming and fishing village on the Shore is considering some sort of residential development. Planners are predicting a 25-year surge that is expected to boost the Maryland Shore's population by nearly a third, adding 160,000 new residents to 425,000 already here.

Baby boomers are flocking to the Lower Shore, snapping up everything from rural retreats to waterfront condos as second or retirement homes. Commuters, undaunted by increasing traffic, are settling in towns that, like Centreville, are prized as much for access to U.S. 50 as for rural ambience. Developers are marketing these places as the "commutable shore," with real estate agents pointing to their proximity to Annapolis, Wilmington, Del., or even Baltimore, which is at least 75 minutes away.

Supporters say such development can bring vitality to towns that for years were hemorrhaging population.

"If you have gone from 12,500 people in 1960 to 11,000 residents today, I would stipulate you would require some kind of stimulus," says Cambridge Mayor Cleveland L. Rippons. "How can you say we're growing too fast when you see that population loss?"

But an influx of people can bring traffic congestion, crowded schools, cluttered landscapes and something less tangible - a loss of charm in a region dear to many Marylanders. More and more, both longtime residents and newcomers are joining environmentalists in asking whether anyone has a plan to handle the onslaught.

"There is endless, endless growth, and there's no one looking at the cumulative effect of each of those projects on the resources of the region," says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Maryland. "That should be where the state is stepping in and saying very clearly, 'We're not going to bail you out here and pay for an 18-lane [U.S.] 50 to meet those needs.'"

Several million people live in metropolitan areas near the Eastern Shore, and many of them are looking for somewhere to move where they can actually afford a house with a yard. The growth is all over the Shore, including places planners have least expected to see it.

Mayor Rippons' Cambridge is expecting about 6,600 new houses and condos - many of them virtually on the edge of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. In Chestertown, home to 4,700 people as well as Washington College, civic leaders once railed against development. Now, they are considering two annexation proposals that would bring nearly 1,000 new households.

But much of the growth is coming to tiny towns. Their frustrated residents want a grocery store or a sewage treatment plant, and they are happy to have a developer build one for them - even if that means doubling or tripling the size of their community.

No single government office keeps track of all these plans. A survey by The Sun of more than two dozen towns across the Shore found that they together are considering proposals for at least 25,000 new homes. Among them:

• Residents of Snow Hill, population 2,409, voted in March to annex 1,000 acres of farmland to their Pocomoke River town. Plans call for more than 2,000 homes to be built on former corn and soybean fields.

• Twelve miles from Denton in Caroline County, Goldsboro's 200 residents are waiting for crews to break ground on 500 new homes aimed at commuters who work in Delaware or Anne Arundel County. Many of the town's septic systems are failing, and the developer has offered to build a sewage treatment plant.

• Trappe, a cluster of about 400 homes along busy U.S. 50, has endorsed plans to build 3,000 more during the next 20 years. The new tax revenue could pay for a town police force.

• On the Kent County-Queen Anne's border, little Millington has a bank, a hardware store, a pub, a grocery store and a pharmacy. Now, a developer wants the town of 450 to annex a farm outside its borders and let him build 600 houses.

• Hebron, a lower-Shore town of about 800 residents, has become a bedroom community for fast-growing Salisbury. Hebron is planning for several hundred new homes during the next two decades, a figure that could double its population.

• On the Shore's southern edge, Crisfield may never see the bustle it once enjoyed when the seafood industry thrived. But the town of 2,700 residents has about 500 new waterfront condos, and hundreds more are predicted.

Up and down the Shore, there is fear that every beloved place is about to take a turn. People on Kent Island don't want to become Glen Burnie. People in Easton don't want to become Kent Island. People in Chestertown don't want to become Easton.

And, increasingly, some towns are saying that they don't want to become Centreville.

Along Centreville's leafy square 20 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine the change ahead.

In 1990, Centreville added five new homes. Six came in 1995. The entire decade brought only 70. But since 2000, Centreville has grown at five times that rate, with 359 new homes built - and plans for 500 more.

The volunteer public servants running Centreville thought that newcomers would breathe life into downtown and shore up the tax base.

What they didn't foresee was the increase in traffic or the crowded schools. The growth overburdened the town's old sewage plant, contributing to spills that polluted the Corsica River and raising questions about the ability of small governments to handle complex infrastructure issues.

The extra people haven't helped downtown businesses. Several have closed in the past couple of years, while the newcomers shop in the new Food Lion on the southern end of town.

"Fast and furious, that's how changes are coming," says insurance broker Charles M. Boone Jr., who worked in downtown Centreville for 35 years. "It's turning into a commuter town. It used to be you'd see neighbors at the grocery store. Now all you see is strangers."

The growth is sneaking up on the rest of the Shore, too. Drive around, and some towns are all white clapboard churches and purple wildflowers, produce stands and cornfields. But those who look closely will see the signs: tiny plastic pipes jutting out of the soil to test for the septic systems needed for new homes. Red ribbons mark off land for surveyors. Billboards advertise new homes coming soon.

A growing number of politicians and citizens wonder what the Shore will look like if Maryland continues to let small towns with few resources have so much control over their futures. Many want the state to take a more direct role in planning so that counties and towns aren't building into each other.

"When you go and build hundreds of homes, you destroy the very quality of life you want to live in," says Gene M. Ransom III, a Queen Anne's County commissioner who grew up on the Shore. "The very thing people are trying to run to get away from they're creating here."

'The Hub'
Maryland's Route 404 cuts through the farms and fields of Caroline County, carrying throngs to the Delaware beaches. Every summer, vans packed with lounge chairs and inner tubes whiz by tiny Hillsboro, then hurry on past Denton in their race to the ocean.

Unless they're lost, few drivers will make the left turn onto Route 480, a rural route that would take them to the forlorn trailer parks and empty railroad towns along the county's northern spine. Fewer still will make it all the way to Goldsboro, a triangle of about 80 small frame houses - many of them on failing septic systems - that could best be described as ramshackle.

No one would have thought it possible even a decade ago, but this village of 200 people has attracted a developer willing to build 500 new homes and construct the town's first public water and sewer system. And in a town where the population has dwindled in recent years, many who remain see the plan as a salvation.

Once known as "The Hub" because of its perch at the crossroads of routes 311, 313 and 287, Goldsboro was home to several canneries, a milk transfer station and a chicken house. The Delaware and Chesapeake Railroad stopped here. So did the local farmers, who brought their fresh asparagus to market. Five stores offered a choice for groceries, hardware and baked goods.

All of that is gone.

Refrigerated tanker trucks killed the milk transfer station; competition and labor shortages killed the canneries. Without the canneries, the railroad lost much of its reason for being. The trains stopped running in the early 1980s.

Goldsboro's hub now - if it has one - is a tiny, red town hall with an even smaller post office attached. There is no grocery, no pharmacy, no dry cleaner, no bakery.

When Blanche Bedwell, who is 80, wanted to celebrate the town's centennial a couple of months ago, she had to drive 20 miles to Dover, Del., just to buy a cake.

Without new development, Bedwell says, Goldsboro will remain a shell of its former self.

"It is really a ghost town," says Bedwell, a former town commissioner. "You see a lot of trucks going through, a lot of cars, but nobody comes in to visit anyone."

Goldsboro's salvation comes with a catch: The town will have to let the developer, East Star LLC, a division of Chaney Enterprises, mine sand before it puts in the sewage system.

Town leaders see it as their only choice. The septic systems are in such distress that, at times in the summer, pockets of town smell like waste. With lots too small to handle septic systems, repairs are futile. Except for Mayor Thomas Schaube, who lives on 3 acres, Bedwell doesn't know a soul in town with a dishwasher.

For more than a decade, Goldsboro has been under a Maryland Department of the Environment consent order compelling it to fix its sewage problems. Schaube says the town made the deal with the developer because it can't afford to upgrade the system, and neither the state nor the county has offered much help.

"You need time and money, and we have precious little of either," Schaube says.

Until water and sewer service arrive, Goldsboro can't attract a new store. That leaves Bedwell and other elderly residents worried, wondering how much longer they will be able to drive to Delaware for their basic needs.

Nearly every town in Caroline County is mulling over a proposal for huge residential growth, doubling or tripling in size.

Federalsburg, a town of 2,620 people, is planning for 535 new homes. Denton, which has 3,000 people, is planning for about 12,000 more. And in Ridgely, which bills itself as the strawberry capital of the world, commuters have snapped up houses built on 89 small lots. Last year's $180,000 prices have doubled.

"The town hasn't changed; the lots haven't changed. It's the world that is changing," says Ridgely manager Joe Mangini. He commutes 90 minutes to town hall because he can't afford a home in Ridgely.

'Commutable shore'
These towns have become part of what real estate pioneer Chris Coile calls "the commutable shore" - places whose appeal is their proximity to Dover, Annapolis, Washington or Baltimore.

A quest for affordable housing and decent-sized yards - the same forces that have pushed some former Baltimore-area residents up Interstate 83 and across the Pennsylvania line - are propelling homebuyers across the Bay Bridge.

It's a huge shift from 50 years ago, when the Shore's finest-dressed ladies would plan their annual shopping trip to Baltimore's department stores and stay overnight because it was considered too far to drive back, even after the bridge was built. Many Marylanders from the Western Shore still talk of their sense of awe as they cross the bridge and the relief they feel upon reaching the other side, where the pace is more relaxed and the crabs plump.

But to throngs of commuters, many of whom moved here from other states, the bridge is just something to drive over to get from here to there. And the number of drivers has been increasing: In 1990, about 8.2 million vehicles crossed the bridge. By 2002, the number had jumped to 12.5 million.

Coile was one of the few who foresaw the change.

In 1987, the then-43-year-old Glen Burnie native founded Champion Realty in Anne Arundel County just as people were leaving Baltimore for affordable waterfront in Crownsville and Pasadena.

By the late 1990s, there wasn't much land left, existing homes were out of the average buyer's price range, and counties were imposing building moratoriums. So Coile crossed the Bay Bridge in search of cheap property within commuting range of the metropolitan area.

Coile now has 11 offices on the Eastern Shore and has settled into his own home on Kent Island. He's developing more than 200 homes in Caroline County.

A couple of years ago, one of Coile's biggest gambles seemed to be Heritage Hills, a subdivision of 37 homes built on septic systems next to a trailer park about five miles outside of Goldsboro. The gamble paid off. Houses that sold for less than $200,000 are now going for more than $300,000, and there aren't many left.

"I believed there was a market for regular houses on large lots. And there was, no question about it," Coile says. "It was just literally like it was years ago when people moved to Crownsville from Glen Burnie."

Many of the Heritage Hills buyers came to the Eastern Shore from northern Anne Arundel County.

Ask Coile how he sees Goldsboro, and he doesn't mention the town's desperation. Instead, he calls the place "very commutable, nice country" and extols the virtues of being able to get from there to the Bay Bridge in less than 40 minutes without stopping for a single traffic light.

At the moment, Goldsboro's first growth opportunity in more than a century is on hold, caught in a power struggle between town and county officials that's similar to skirmishes all over the Shore. County officials aren't so sure that putting all those houses in a dying, out-of-the-way crossroads is a good idea.

Maryland law, though, gives towns a great deal of authority to act unilaterally.

Goldsboro's new development is planned for property that used to be just outside the town limits. Town leaders annexed the land last year when officials from East Star submitted their proposal.

These annexations are happening all over the Shore. Developers often prefer to build on property in a town's control because they usually get to build more housing than would be allowed under a county's zoning. Towns like the deal because they can extract concessions from the developers, such as grocery stores, sewage treatment plants, road improvements or even a new town hall.

Neither state nor county officials have the authority to deny municipal annexations. But county leaders - who often object to annexations because the counties are the ones who have to pay for new schools and roads - have discovered ways to delay them.

In Goldsboro's case, the Caroline County commissioners have refused to file an amendment to the county water and sewer plan, a technicality that is holding up the development deal. Commissioner Jack Cole says he questions whether adding 2,000 residents is the best way to save a town that has barely 200.

"I have a major problem with building 500 units to solve an existing wastewater problem," Cole says. "It's like amputating the arm to take care of an aching finger."

In Cole's view, Goldsboro's officials don't have the expertise to make a major infrastructure deal. The town has a volunteer mayor, a part-time manager and little experience in these sorts of complex negotiations.

He says the Shore is crying out for some sort of regional planning authority to coordinate small-town growth plans and figure out whether the roads, schools and infrastructure can handle the onslaught.

But without such coordination at the state level, Cole says, he can at least try to do that for his county. So he's refusing to file the water and sewer amendment until he makes sure that any new sewage plant built by East Star will serve not just Goldsboro, but also neighboring Henderson and Marydel.

Under state law, counties can also delay development by putting a five-year hold on the plans. Goldsboro's leaders hope Caroline County instead chooses to seal a deal quickly with East Star and let the developer build the sewage plant.

"If this doesn't work, nothing will solve this problem," says Dale Mumford, Goldsboro's part-time manager.

Not every town welcomes development the way Goldsboro has.

In Queenstown, a picturesque Queen Anne's County village bordered by outlet malls and U.S. 50, voters threw out a town commissioner who wanted to annex several farms so a developer could build 1,000 homes. And when a developer approached Hillsboro Commission President Ron Stafford about annexing land to build homes in exchange for a public sewage system, Stafford knocked on every door to ask all 168 residents if they wanted it. The overwhelming response was no.

But while Queenstown fought off one developer, town officials say the land will not remain empty - farmers still have a right to sell their property. The development could just happen under county zoning. In Hillsboro, though the town said no, the developer still built homes - just not as many, and on septic systems outside town.

It's not just small towns that are experiencing growth. Counties, too, are allowing sprawling development that critics say is unwise.

Kent Island, which is unincorporated, has thousands of homes slated to be built in the next decade on a peninsula so congested that many residents dare not leave their homes on summer weekends because of the traffic. About 100 miles south in Whiton, a speck of a town along the Worcester-Wicomico border, a developer wants to build 1,000 homes on forest and wetlands.

"One of these days, when we look across the field and can't see the woods anymore, we'll have nobody to blame but ourselves," Hillsboro's Stafford says. "Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but we have to control our growth to control our destiny."

Two pediatricians
Many planners look at the Shore's rapid development and see disaster ahead.

They worry that rural roads will need expensive upgrades, that school yards will become overrun with trailers, that new malls on a highway's edge will pull shoppers away from town centers and render them desolate. By that time, the developers will be gone and local leaders will be left with the problems.

Caroline County, for example, expects thousands of new residents in the next decade, some of them young families, others retirees. Yet the county has no cardiologist and just two pediatricians, one of whom is leaving next month. It has no hospital, so its ambulances must navigate a narrow bridge to Easton's medical center, about 20 miles away from the county seat of Denton. The whole county has only two high schools.

Queen Anne's County isn't in much better shape. It, too, has no hospital. And its two high schools are already crowded.

To the extent that there is regional planning in Maryland, the responsibility lies with the state Department of Planning. Unlike many other state agencies, the department has no regulatory power. It has authority only to review and comment on local plans.

Planning Secretary Audrey Scott says many of the Eastern Shore annexations do not meet her criteria for smart development. But Scott, a former mayor, says Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration has no desire to exert jurisdiction over local planning issues.

"The most important authority to determine how land is used is zoning. And zoning is the exclusive right of local communities and municipalities," Scott says. "The state should not be involved in local zoning decisions."

In the 1990s, during the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the state took a more forceful role. Glendening pushed his "Smart Growth" policies - steering development to built-up areas while trying to preserve open space - by using a carrot-and-stick approach.

Towns and counties that planned developments in accordance with state wishes got grants for transit, roads and land preservation. Those that shunned Smart Growth were denied some state aid. For instance, Glendening withheld nearly $500,000 from Carroll County until officials there rescinded a zoning change that would have made rural lands more vulnerable to builders.

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, says he doesn't want to see the state tell local governments what to do. But Pipkin also says that towns and counties need to do much more to plan their futures together.

During this year's General Assembly session, Pipkin introduced legislation endorsed by the Maryland Association of Counties that would have increased to 10 years the hold that counties can put on annexations. Such a long delay would put off many developers, and the Maryland Municipal League, which lobbies for the towns, successfully fought the bill.

State Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, was one of a dozen sponsors of a bill that would have given the state's environmental departments authority to approve or deny local projects. Real estate lobbyists and Ehrlich's planning department were among those opposing the change.

In the bill that passed, the agencies can only review and comment on plans. The legislation also requires towns and counties to communicate more - though each can still pretty much grow as it wants.

"Growth issues have historically and continue to be decided at the local level. That's not going to change," Pipkin says. "Are we better off with this bill? Yes. Is this the end-all, be-all? No."

Blue plastic bags
It's left to folks such as Rob Etgen to think Shore-wide about land use.

Etgen is director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, a nonprofit land preservation group that, though it has little money, has saved more than 200 farms in the past two decades. But driving around the countryside in Etgen's tiny Volkswagen bug, it looks like the effort has hardly made a dent.

Along Route 213 between Centreville and Chestertown, Etgen travels past beaver dams, bicyclists and rows of corn. He also passes seven farms that were slated for development. His group was able to buy and preserve only one of them. He is trying to buy two more, as well as some land within Centreville's town limits.

Etgen doesn't have to go far to point out his worst fears for Centreville, and for the rest of the Eastern Shore. Just 20 minutes from the farms he could not save, Etgen steers the bug across the state line into Delaware. In Middletown, land that was once peach orchards is now townhouses and big-box stores. There are no trees. Blue plastic bags fly overhead - litter from the many stores. These, Etgen jokes, are the official state bird of Delaware.

Less than a mile away sit the bones of a good downtown, with charming century-old houses and a handful of shops. But while the parking lot at the Lowe's is full, the town center looks empty.

It's a lesson Etgen wishes that places such as Centreville would learn. More houses bring in more people, but they don't bring back a downtown, and they can't restore a sense of place.

"I don't know why we plan like this," Etgen says. "It's a very risky way for us to plan our future."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com chris.guy@baltsun.com