STEVENSVILLE -- It begins in the still-dark hours of the morning as a ribbon of headlights flashing across the graceful steel and concrete curve of the westbound Bay Bridge.
The workaday trek to Annapolis, Baltimore or Washington is documented by 12,000 commuter tickets collected at tollbooths from motorists who have discovered they can have it both ways -- working in higher-paying jobs in or near the cities while enjoying the peace of an Eastern Shore lifestyle.
While all five counties of the Upper Shore report increasing numbers of residents willing to drive from Easton, Denton or Chestertown to work "across the bay," it is Queen Anne's County -- especially Kent Island and other close-in communities along U.S. 50 and 301 -- that continues to lure new residents.
Moderate housing prices -- an average of $157,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath home -- and good schools are often cited as incentives. But the real draw is location and the intangible "quality of life" that most residents say is impossible to match anywhere else in the area.
"For me, the thing is to get over the bridge on the way home. It's just a sigh of relief," said Michael Day, who has commuted for eight years from Kent Island to his job with the Maryland Historical Trust in Crownsville. "There's a real sense of leaving a lot of negatives behind."
Nearly 60 percent of Queen Anne's work force of 20,000 commute to jobs outside the county. Some workers head to Easton or other small employment centers elsewhere on the Shore, but the majority are traveling across the Bay Bridge, county economic development officials said.
Bruce Mertz -- who lives in the sprawling Cloverfields neighborhood north of U.S. 50 with his wife, Tawna, and their 13-year-old daughter, Kara -- drives to his job as director of a nonprofit farm advocacy organization in College Park.
"We've been here about four years, and it's ideal," said Mertz. "My wife drives to Caroline County and my daughter just started at the brand-new high school here. My commute is not bad -- about 45 minutes, and when you hit the bridge on the way home, it's a palpable feeling of relief, a feeling that things are different over here."
Mertz and Day are not alone. Commuter ticket sales at the Bay Bridge have increased by more than 26 percent since 1993, totaling more than 3.2 million last year.
Growth plan review
Queen Anne's grew about 50 percent from 1980 to 1995, and Kent Island's population grew by about 83 percent in that same period. The island has about 16,000 residents. If projections from county planners prove accurate, the island will see nearly 60 percent growth by 2015.
The question, officials say, is how that growth will occur. The county is set to begin an 18-month to two-year review of its comprehensive plan, which will guide development.
One fundamental element that will not significantly change is the six designated-growth areas that have been part of the plan for a decade. Designed to preserve as much agricultural land as possible, especially in northern Queen Anne's, five of the six areas targeted for growth -- including Kent Island and the nearby towns of Grasonville and Queenstown -- are in the U.S. 50-U.S. 301 corridor.
"Everybody loves an update of the comprehensive plan because it puts everything out on the table for the developers, the environmentalists, everybody," said County Commissioner George M. O'Donnell. "The trick, I think, is trying to direct good-quality development around the growth areas."
Water, sewer concerns
County officials also will grapple with decisions about upgrading water and sewer service that could open large tracts for development.
Upgrading the county's wastewater-treatment plant in Stevensville would cost an estimated $30 million, said O'Donnell, and an expansion of the plant could clear the way for the owners of as many as 800 lots scattered around Kent Island to develop their property -- growth that could swamp roads and schools.
Completion of the plan in 1991 and the extension of sewer lines to Cloverfields and Bay City (where failing septic systems posed a health threat) in 1994 and 1995 produced a surge of construction as developers began building on vacant lots that are unsuitable for septic systems.
In the past two years, for instance, building permits for more than 400 homes have been issued on Kent Island.
Mary Lou Pierson, a real estate broker there for more than 30 years and a member of the county's economic development commission, said the extension of water and sewer service -- combined with nearly $100 million in highway improvements pushed through by former Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- has fueled development in the past decade.
She believes that consumer demand, particularly from current residents, may create growth in more rural areas of the county.
"What I have seen over the years is that when people first move here, they tend to be as close to the bridge as possible," Pierson said. "Later, they want to move farther away. The comprehensive plan can make recommendations, but people will decide where they will live."
That is exactly what worries slow-growth activists.
Wye Knot Farm example
One recent example of how porous the county's development-review process can be, says environmentalist Ellie Altman, is the Wye Knot Farm subdivision. The 60-lot community of midpriced homes near Wye Mills is 15 miles from the nearest public water and sewer lines.
"If that's the county's idea of controlling growth, I just don't see it that way," she said. "We're seeing too much of that kind of development. It's a very real concern."
But developer Mareen Waterman, an Anne Arundel County transplant, believes projects such as Wye Knot Farm are a logical extension of growth trends on Kent Island.
"I have played a role over the years in bringing 1,000 houses to fruition," Waterman said. "What we have seen over the last 10 years is that Kent Island is moving farther inland."
Pub Date: 1/10/99