Time and the tide of development arrive at Tilghman Island, despite reservations


TILGHMAN ISLAND -- Wooden workboats and fiberglass sailboats bob in the harbor. Progress is lapping at the shores of this Talbot County island community.

As the rush to buy -- and sell -- waterfront lots works its way down the Eastern Shore, all but one of Tilghman Island's half-dozen farms have been subdivided. Few of the waterfront ++ homes on the island are still owned by natives.

The low-lying island -- on the way to nowhere, as they say here -- comes at the end of a 22-mile road from prosperous Easton and is linked to the mainland by a bridge over Knapp Narrows.

The island is about four miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide. Its seafood packing plant is long gone, but an old inn for fishermen survives -- and is thriving. At least one bed-and-breakfast business also operates on the island.

It has two grocery stores, an elementary school, several churches, a fire department -- but no police force. There are a couple of recently opened antique shops.

While no Tilghman Island boom is yet apparent, gradual population shifts and growth have occurred. The 1990 Census, according to the Maryland Office of Planning, counted 745 year-round residents on the island. These were broken down as follows: 739 whites, one black, three American Indians, one Asian/Pacific Islander, one "other."

But in the summer months, thatnumber more than doubles, said a lifelong resident, Alice Harrison.

The island's postmaster, Cheryl Lawrence, said she now has 435 mailboxes to fill, some of which serve more than one family -- about 50 more mailboxes than four years ago.

Local people predicted more rapid growth than this when a wastewater treatment plant for the island was mandated by Maryland environmental officials in the mid-1980s. At that time, many residents fought the plant, arguing that it would cost them money they could not afford and drive property taxes beyond their reach.

The opponents also said they feared unchecked land development and an end to their quiet way of life.

The combination of developmentand environmental pressures won out, and the plant opened in July 1985. It has kept the state's promise: The oyster beds that surround the island, once closed to shellfishing, are no longer polluted and are back in business. And population density on most of the island is restricted by critical-areas and non-tidal wetlands laws.

Tilghman Island is still a quiet, unhurried place where you can leave your door unlocked at night. But Colleen Sadler, who grew up here, finds these days that she no longer knows everyone she sees at the post office.

Like many of her neighbors, she has come to accept the trickle of new faces. "I'm glad to see Tilghman's developing," she said. "But I would like to see the city people keep it the way it is."

Real estate agent Rondy Alstrom could be considered one of those "city people." She first came here on weekends in 1979. Since moving here permanently in late 1986, Ms. Alstrom has been involved as an agent in more than 50 property sales, mostly on the island, a figure that includes some resales of homes.

"I'm proud of Tilghman Island," she said. "I think it's changing for the better."

Sales in the island's half-dozen new, upscale subdivisions have been less than brisk, however. Since the Tilghman-on-the-Chesapeake development was approved three years ago, none of its homesites has been sold. Developers blame this on a general slump in the real estate market; lot prices of $200,000 to $250,000 are out of the range of most present islanders.

Ms. Alstrom predicted a surge in service-oriented businesses on Tilghman Island once such lots begin to sell. And that, she said, will bring jobs. With the future of traditional seafood harvesting on the Chesapeake Bay looking bleaker and bleaker, she said, the new jobs may be what this old community of watermen needs.

David McQuay is a fourth-generation Tilghman Island boat builder. He is resigned to the appearance of expensive residential developments along the island's irregular shoreline, but he is not putting out the welcome mat.

"It's not doing anything for Tilghman," Mr. McQuay said of Tilghman-on-the-Chesapeake, adding that its "sole purpose is to offer people a chance to get out of the urban areas and relax in the country."

Referring to the homesite prices, he said, "I'd like to see local people make some money off the land. I'd like them to have a chance to buy. But at those prices, it's out of the question."

Not all Tilghman Islanders of long standing agree with him. Local businessman Levin "Buddy" Harrison sees the Tilghman-on-the-Chesapeake, Grey Goose Farm and Tilghman Quay developments as steps toward a brighter future for the island.

"A lot of natives that have moved into senior centers sold their homes here to people that use this as their second home," he said. "These people come down just about every weekend, not just in the summer, but in the winter, too. They're good for the island."

Mr. Harrison acknowledged that this trend would be especially good for him, as he owns the Chesapeake House restaurant and inn here and has a thriving charter-boat business.

But he also pointed out that many newcomers have made important contributions to the community.

Michael Roe, who has moved off the island but is still a member of its volunteer fire department, agrees.

"I've noticed in the last 10 years, some new people have moved here that are really active in the community," Mr. Roe said. "A lot of them have joined the fire department. I can think of one guy who retired for the Department of Energy. He brought a lot of fresh ideas. It's been great."

Along with many Shore residents, Mr. Roe sees Tilghman Island following the course of nearby St. Michael's. But he differs with those who look with horror at a future full of tourists.

"In the '70s, St. Michael's was dying," Mr. Roe recalled. His father ran a hardware store there, and when a recession hit, that town's business slowed almost to a halt. "On a Saturday afternoon," he said, "you could drive a bus down a sidewalk in St. Michael's and not hit anybody."

He said the development of Martingham, on the outskirts of St. Michael's, helped turn the downwardtrend around. Like Tilghman-on-the-Chesapeake today, Martingham opened with lots carrying price tags considerably above the local range.

Eventually, he said, people from Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia did buy homes in Martingham. And because they did, the tourists followed.

"People in St. Michael's complain about the tourists," Mr. Roe acknowledged. "But because of the tourists, they have the restaurants and the shops people in St. Michael's like to go to."

Ms. Alstrom's vision for Tilghman is similar. Looking at a small house on Main Street that could use a good coat of paint, she sees a gourmet delicatessen. "It's zoned commercial," she said. "And as more and more sailboats arrive, this place is going to need a gourmet deli."

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