Buyers go the distance for new homes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CENTREVILLE -- Rocky and Carol Luckett had moved to the Eastern Shore to find a quiet life in a rural setting, but their Kent Island home never quite met their expectations. The lot was small and planes buzzed frighteningly close as pilots prepared for a landing on a nearby airstrip.

"I didn't feel we got the country on Kent Island. The houses are side by side. It was more like a cottage place," recalled Mr. Luckett, whose dream was to own "a few acres and a little woods."

So, the Lucketts packed up their two children and moved inland 20 miles to a 4 1/2 -acre, partially wooded lot near Centreville, in Creek Point Road, a small subdivision nestled in Queen Anne's County farm country.

The lot was so inexpensive --they paid $57,500 for it two years ago -- that, by doing some of the work themselves, they could afford to build a spacious, 3,700-square-foot home with three fireplaces, five full baths and a sweeping back porch that follows the length of the 135-foot-long rancher.

Mr. Luckett, an electrician for a Baltimore contractor, symbolizes the new breed of commuter driving to the Baltimore area from the inner reaches of the Eastern Shore.

Many commuters have become disillusioned with the suburbanization of southern Queen Anne's County, particularly Kent Island, the Eastern Shore terminus for the Bay Bridge.

The sprawl of roads, businesses and homes west of Queenstown are part of the problem. Meanwhile, legislation limiting development of the waterfront and the lack of additional sewer capacity in the Kent Island/Kent Narrows/Grasonville corridor along U.S. 50 have made it more difficult for prospective buyers to find the lot they want.

Consequently, more and more commuters, who may spend as much as 3 1/2 hours on the road each day, are willing to add an extra 40 minutes of driving to find the peaceful, rural environment they want for their families.

"You come out here to a simpler life and it seems like you can give a little more to your kids," said Mr. Luckett, who grew up outside Washington.

At least five other residents in Creek Point, Mr. Luckett's subdivision, commute across the Bay Bridge to work.

Neighbor Calvin Price drives to Baltimore to a job with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. The Prices first shopped for a lot on Kent Island three years ago, but the island lots were selling so fast that when they came back the next week to buy one they were looking at, it was sold. The Prices eventually built a two-story, Early American-style house with skylights in the cathedral ceiling in the kitchen, a two-car garage and a screened-in back porch. Bird feeders draw the wildlife out of the nearby woods into their back yard.

"It's much nicer out here and not as congested," Mr. Price said.

Several houses down, John Thompson, an electrician who works with a Baltimore firm, recently built a home with his wife, Torie. Mr. Thompson, who spent his childhood in Centreville, had fond memories of the Shore and, when his wife took a job as a schoolteacher in Queen Anne's County, he was glad for the opportunity to come home.

"I pretty much wanted to come back," he said. "We didn't like Pasadena at all."

Just three years ago, most commuters considered Centreville, 20 miles from the Bay Bridge, too far to travel daily. So they generally bought homes on Kent Island, or around Grasonville and Queenstown at the southern end of Queen Anne's County.

But recent improvements to U.S. 50 through Queen Anne's County, including construction of several overpasses and a high bridge at Kent Narrows, have shortened the time it takes for commuters to reach points further east on the Shore. Meanwhile, completion of Route 97 on the Western Shore has made traveling through Annapolis much quicker.

The road improvements have cut 15 to 20 minutes from a commute across the Bay Bridge, bringing areas like Centreville and Easton in Talbot County within acceptable drive-time to jobs on the Western Shore.

Lower real estate prices are another reason why commuters are traveling a little farther.

James Latham, president of Coldwell Banker Latham Realtors in Easton, estimates that real estate prices are at least 20 percent less on the Eastern Shore than they are on the Western Shore. And the farther from the Bay Bridge prospective buyers are willing to travel on the Shore, the lower real estate prices they find.

For example, when the Prices shopped on Kent Island, they found the price of a half-acre lot was $40,000. They bought their 1 1/2 -acre lot in Creek Point outside Centreville for $37,000.

Prospective homebuyers willing to travel 10 or 20 miles farther into Caroline County will find even lower prices. There the average one-acre lot sells for $22,000, said Betsy Krempasky, planning director for Caroline County. Bargains in real estate can still be found in Caroline, like two-acre lots for $20,000, or three-bedroom houses for $80,000.

Ms. Krempasky first noticed commuters buying lots in Caroline three years ago. Today, she believes that 10 to 15 percent of the new homebuyers in Caroline County are commuters, usually professionals with children, though some are older couples, planning to retire in a few years.

At first, Ms. Krempasky thought it was strange that people would commute from Caroline County to Washington, a trek of over more than 60 miles. Now she understands that people "would rather be driving 50 mph on a highway than be in stop-and-go traffic. There's more stress on you in stop-and-go traffic," she noted.

Fewer available lots on Kent Island have contributed to the eastward migration of commuters.

"It's becoming more difficult to subdivide," said Margaret Kaii, deputy director of the Queen Anne's County Planning and Zoning Office.

She attributed the difficulty in part to the state's "critical area" bill that went into effect several years ago, limiting building within 1,000 feet of the shoreline. Lack of sewage capacity in areas served by the county sewer system may also have slowed real estate sales on Kent Island, Ms. Kaii observed.

However, there are several subdivisions planned for areas west of Queenstown, including a 23-lot subdivision at Bloody Point on the southern tip of Kent Island and a 66-lot subdivision near Cloverfields on the northern side of the island.

The biggest obstacle to long-distance commuting appears to be the heavy ocean-bound traffic on U.S. 50 and Route 404 in the summer.

Many commuters adjust their work schedule to avoid the traffic jams. Some employees save up their vacation and take Fridays off in the summer.

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