For nearly a decade, different versions of plans for a subdivision on 477 mostly marshy acres on the Shady Side peninsula have been percolating through Anne Arundel County's land use bureaucracy.
Now, developers are trying to move ahead with Baldwin's Choice, 158 houses on 3-acre lots on the last large tract on the peninsula that fronts the Chesapeake Bay. Furious neighbors, who agreed seven years ago not to oppose a larger subdivision, are vowing to do everything they can to block this development.
They have collected more than 1,100 signatures on petitions opposing the plan. Last week, 300 opponents attended a Maryland Department of Natural Resources hearing to loudly denounce the plan. Others have flooded government offices with letters claiming officials are insensitive to quality of life issues in South County and are eager to please the building community.
"We see the real value, beauty and charm of the area gradually being prostituted -- to the dollars, of course," Alma and Robert McChesney Jr. wrote in protest.
Residents worry that the additional development would add more traffic to crowded Shady Side Road, the peninsula's only link to the outside world. They also are concerned about the impact of adding more students to crowded schools and a development in an environmentally sensitive area.
They are hoping that the discovery of four small cemeteries of freed blacks can squash the plans, and say they will ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- which has jurisdiction over part of the project -- for a hearing. If all else fails, they hope someone will buy the land to protect it from development.
"Our ultimate goal would be to find a conservation organization to buy it, to preserve it forever, with consideration of the county buying it as a passive recreation area of some kind," said Michael J. Bevenour, an architect who is president of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development (SACRD), the group organized to fight the plan.
SACRD envisions something akin to Jug Bay, the wetlands sanctuary in the southwestern corner of the county, or Quiet Waters, the park on the edge of Annapolis with hiking and biking trails cut through the woods, he said.
Kathryn Dahl, attorney for Pointe Properties, the developer, dismissed the residents' objections.
"It's 500 acres with 158 units," she said. "You won't even see the houses from the road. We have one house for 3 acres, and it's zoned for one house for 1 acre."
Many residents think of the tract as "undeveloped land, and they want to keep it that way," she said. "Well, that isn't going to happen."
Developers have been eyeing the tract, which includes the former Deep Creek Airport and more than 300 acres of nontidal marshes, since a new sewer line became available in the mid-1980s and the land was rezoned for residential development. Franklin Point Limited Partnership acquired it in 1986 and filed several development plans during the next five years, each time decreasing the number of homes.
In August 1988, the Chesapeake Environmental Protection Association (CEPA) and the Shady Side Peninsula Association agreed not to oppose the project if the developer reduced it to 220 homes.
But the developer fell on hard times and the project languished. Meanwhile, the state approved regulations to preserve nontidal marshes, which were to take effect Jan. 1, 1991. The developer revived and revised plans Dec. 29, 1990.
Now, the biggest issue holding up county approval is the question of school crowding, said Steve Callahan of the county's Planning and Code Enforcement Office.
Pointe Properties was denied permission to build last year because local schools are crowded. The developer asked the county Board of Appeals to review that decision and has offered to build an addition to Shady Side Elementary School, according to letters on file in county offices.
Opponents say the proposal would not help crowding at Southern Middle School and complained that the construction would cost the developer less than the approximately $600,000 it would have to compensate the county for adding 97 students to those two schools.
They say more traffic means a greater risk of accidents on Shady Side Road, which would threaten emergency services.
"It serves as the only road that would evacuate this peninsula," said Shawn Mashie, a Franklin Manor Community Association board member.
Mainly, however, the opponents worry about the environmental damage to the last bay-front refuge for wildlife on a peninsula being nibbled away by development.
Bordered by Deep Creek, Flag Pond and the bay, much of the tract cannot be built on because it is in the waterfront Critical Area. The black rail, a bird whose existence is threatened in Maryland, has been spotted on the property.
The state Department of Natural Resources has recommended the developer keep two houses on the southern tip of the site as far from the water as possible to protect the black rail's habitat.
In addition, local residents say more wells on the peninsula would cause the water table to drop even farther.
"In Columbia Beach last year, there must have been about 20 wells that dried up for lack of water," said Robert A. Williams, president of the Columbia Beach Citizens Association. "It costs over $3,000 to dig a new well. It is a real problem."
Storm-water holding ponds necessary for construction would discharge near tidal marshes, drive away wildlife and decrease the salinity of the water so that crabs would no longer dwell among whatever water plants aren't washed away, residents say.
Pointe Properties is planning a 6-foot-wide, 900-foot-long footbridge across Flag Pond. But even a temporary disturbance would leave the water susceptible to phragmites, an invasive reed that chokes out more desirable plants.
State natural resources authorities, the U.S. Coast Guard and Army engineers are to consider those issues before they issue permits.
Peg Burroughs, a Chesapeake Environmental Protection Association member who helped negotiate the 1988 pact, said she cannot oppose the plan for fewer houses, but that she is saddened by the development.
"In this case I cannot fight the density," she said. "But I'm sad that so much of this area is going, and going the way it is going. Wouldn't it be nice to have a park?"