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Rural ways make for a rough ride; Unpaved roads stir up dust, spats in Caroline


TUCKAHOE CREEK -- Bill and Louise Schmotzer thought they had found the perfect place to retire, on a secluded, waterfront farm surrounded by the flat fields of the Eastern Shore.

But after 15 years of bruising trips home, billowing clouds of reddish-brown dust and constant car repairs, life at the end of a dirt road has lost its charm.

"It's a mess. We can't even get out when the weather's bad," frets Louise Schmotzer, 78, who grew up a mile away and remembers being thrown out of her seat on the school bus.

"My sister won't come see me because she says it shakes her car apart," she says. "We never imagined this would be a dirt road forever. We thought it would modernize with the times."

In most parts of Maryland, dirt roads have long since disappeared along with general stores, tractor dealers and large stretches of farmland. Not in Caroline County, however, where suburban development is scarce and rural ways endure.

One-fifth of the county roads remain unpaved, by far the most on the Eastern Shore. Neighboring Talbot, Somerset and Wicomico counties have fewer dirt roads combined. Only tiny Allegany and Garrett counties in the mountains of Western Maryland have more.

In Caroline County, a largely poor, agricultural community bordering Delaware, 102 miles of dirt and gravel roads pass chicken farms, marshy creeks and white-washed frame houses. Paved streets abruptly give way to sand. Some are dead-ends with three or four residences. Others are heavily traveled.

Generations have grown up along the dirt roads, which generally look the same as in the 1920s. But for many residents, they're anything but a tradition worth saving.

Dust, mud and ruts

Except for a few old-timers -- and the teen-agers who like to drive fast and fish-tail in the dirt -- most folks on the back roads are fed up. They're tired of the dust, of the mud, and especially of the deep ruts that can jolt loose parts in the sturdiest trucks.

The frustration is so great that the county elected a new commissioner last fall on a platform promising to pave. Republican Franklin Prettyman campaigned at fairs and barber shops, promising to do his best to "move us off dead-center" and improve the roads.

"A lot of people have had this in their craw for some time," says Prettyman, 60, who owns a mobile-home park in the southern end of the county. "We've got to find a way to get started."

The holdup has been the result of several decades-old county policies designed to build safe roads -- and an equally long-standing shortage of funds.

Unlike most jurisdictions in Maryland, Caroline County decided it would pave only roads that were at least 50 feet wide. By doing so, the county hoped to avoid hazardous narrow roads. But as in the rest of the state, the county has rights to only 30 feet of roadway -- and officials refuse to condemn another 20 feet of land. That means nothing can be done without property owners' consent.

"Even when a lot of people want their road paved, it's hard to get everyone to agree," notes Harry T. Cole, roads superintendent.

"There's always one or two who don't want it," he says. "Either they want to be paid for their 10 feet, or they're worried about traffic, or they want it to stay rural."

One case is Ganey's Wharf Road, a frequently traveled route to a landing and roadside park on the Choptank River. All except a mile is paved.

On the unfinished stretch live Ike and Etta Todd, who complain bitterly at the county's annual road meetings about spending a small fortune on vehicle repairs. A quarter-mile down are Merle and Sharon Evans, who like to ride their horses in the dirt and want it left untouched.

"Last summer, we had these ruts, it was unbelievable," says Ike Todd, a contractor who has lived on the road for 30 years. "It was like driving over waves on a river."

Things got so bad that the Todds persuaded the county to use an experimental mix of soybean oil to smooth the sandy ridges in front of their home.

But Sharon Evans, a Black & Decker assembly worker, has refused to give up any of her property, fearing a widened road would come too close to her well. Besides, she believes a dirt road keeps down traffic.

"I know from being a kid here -- the back roads, you can fly on," she says. "I think we'd be asking for trouble if we black-top it."

'Always too broke'

The new commissioner believes there is a way to end the stalemate. If Caroline County wants to do something about its 89 dirt roads, Prettyman says, it will have to do as other counties have -- -- pave the right of way it owns.

Talbot paved 30-foot roads; today, it has less than a mile of dirt road left. Wicomico has finished all but 44 miles of its 700 miles of county roads. In St. Mary's County, the only dirt roads are private.

It will take more than a change in philosophy, however. Caroline County, which has the second-poorest tax base in the state, will have to find the money.

"We were always too broke," says Charles C. Cawley, the county administrator.

"We didn't have the funds -- or really the need. Has that changed? Absolutely. There are more people living in the countryside, and as the usage goes up, the roads deteriorate faster. There have been people who lived on dirt roads for years who are now complaining."

The county's resources, however, are pretty much the same. Cole has a budget of $2.4 million, and while he'll black-top any road the county wants done, he points out that other projects would have to be put off. Each mile, he figures, would cost $52,000 for the dirt base and tar -- and tie up county crews who could be scraping the dirt roads smooth.

He expects resistance to paving, even without widening. Despite the inconveniences, at least a few residents want their dirt roads to remain.

"We were looking for solitude, someplace as rural as possible," says Nancy Stewart, a state biologist who lives with her husband, Scott Smith, on a dirt road near Harmony. She concedes that paving might prevent some sediment runoff, but says "Overall, I'd rather it didn't change."

Similar fears of a loss of rural heritage have prompted protests in other counties -- and even halted Montgomery County's paving program in the late 1980s.

After influential residents objected to paving, Montgomery County created a "rural and rustic roads" program to preserve dirt stretches. One runs 1,000 feet through a section of an otherwise paved, seven-mile road in Olney.

If there's nostalgia for dirt roads, it's not shared by Bill Schmotzer in Caroline. The retired sales manager, who moved with wife Louise to land overlooking Tuckahoe Creek, has heard the laments about the county losing its rural tradition. He laughs.

Caroline County of today, he says, is nothing like it was during Louise's childhood. Many of its family farms have gone out of business or been bought by the poultry industry. Farmers no longer crowd the streets of Denton on Friday nights.

"It's time for us to recognize we're not in the horse-and-buggy days," he says.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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