SNOW HILL - Five years ago, a referendum against a proposed low-income housing development touched off a debate with racial overtones that divided residents of this 300-year-old Worcester County seat.
Now, however, a similar proposal is quickly moving ahead, boosted by a coalition of housing activists, town officials and area ministers - not to mention a public relations effort that included an informational mailing to every household in town.
Their plan undone by 78 votes at the polls in 1995, housing advocates were determined to build a stronger base of support for their newest project aimed at poor working families.
Supporters, including the Town Council and the local NAACP, seem to have soothed fears that the 24-unit Greenbriar Court community will drain public coffers, lower property values or bring an increase in crime in Snow Hill, population 2,217. In addition to mailing brochures explaining the project to 1,200 Snow Hill households, organizers took out a half-page ad in the local weekly paper.
"There's no question that race and fear played a part in generating opposition [in 1995], but I think it was an issue of class," says Edward S. Lee, who heads the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Worcester.
"Now, I think [the new project] has given us an opportunity to create a vision for Snow Hill. It's challenged our elected leaders to look to the future," Lee says.
Mary Merritt, who led the fight against the project five years ago, says she and her neighbors who live near the 7 1/2 -acre site were out-maneuvered this time. In ill health, Merritt will not push for another referendum. She says other opponents, many of whom are young black families who have built houses recently, are reluctant to speak out.
"This is not a racial issue; this is a mixed neighborhood, black and white," says Merritt, a Worcester County native who has lived in Snow Hill since 1982. "No one is opposed to building new homes, renovating old homes or helping people buy their first home. I've lived all over the country, and these kinds of apartment projects don't work."
Larry Knudsen, who runs the River House Bed and Breakfast with his wife Susanne, a former mayor, opposed the housing project in 1995. This time, he says, the debate has been less emotional.
"I don't sense that the temperature is hot enough [for another referendum drive]," Knudsen says. "I don't think the community has changed so much as the [housing group] has changed the way they presented it."
The $2.3 million project will be paid for with a combination of low-interest federal and state loans to Snow Hill Citizens for Decent Housing, a 17-year-old group that has successfully overseen a variety of projects in town, including renovating more than a dozen single-family homes in recent years.
The nonprofit group's leaders point to their track record of building or renovating single-family homes around town in recent years. Another example, says board member Anne Taylor, is the 28-unit apartment community the citizens group built in 1988.
"I think this is our best chance of getting a large number of rental units built," said Taylor, a retired teacher who spent most of her career in segregated Worcester schools. "I don't see anybody in the private sector building rental units. The advantage we have as a nonprofit is we can put the money back into maintenance and good management."
Taylor says a housing survey completed last year showed that 42 percent of the citizens of Snow Hill would qualify to live in Greenbriar Court, which would be available for families, the elderly or disabled people earning less than $25,250.
Local officials acknowledge that in a town noted for its expansive homes in the historic district near the county courthouse, many low-income units are in bad condition.
Despite increased efforts to enforce zoning rules, officials are reluctant to crack down on landlords who rent dilapidated buildings for fear of displacing poor families. New rental options will allow better enforcement of the housing code, they say.
"I'm not sure that this is the total answer for all our housing problems, but it is a start," says Town Councilwoman Dorothy Holzworth, a retired family physician who has lived in Snow Hill for 27 years.
"I do think this could pave the way for some different programs," Holzworth said. "I did some door-to-door and phone canvassing on this, and people are supportive."
The Rev. Lehman R. Tomlin, pastor of Ebenezer United Methodist Church, says at least 5 percent of Snow Hill's residents, many of them black, live in substandard housing.
New housing units are sorely needed, he says.
"Race relations in this town are very poor," said Tomlin, who took over his church about a year ago. "Things have been the way they are for so long, no one on either side is trying to raise it to another level. This project has implications for every institution in Snow Hill. The important thing is to keep this forward thrust."
Loan applications have been submitted to federal rural development agencies and to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.
According to David Layfield, an administrator with the nonprofit National Council for Agricultural Life and Labor, which advises local housing agencies throughout Delmarva, final approval should come by the end of next month.
Construction, he says, could begin in Snow Hill by early spring.
"The referendum blocked us from getting a loan from the state, so it's been five years," Taylor said. "We answered so many questions and rumors this time, we had much less visible opposition."