CHESTER - As the state's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission prepares to weigh the fate of the largest development ever proposed in fast-growing Queen Anne's County, tensions are rising among residents who contend that a construction boom is threatening the slower lifestyle they thought they were getting when they moved east of the bay.
A summer of discontent for disgruntled residents of Kent Island and other growth-control advocates came to a head last week. Nearly 600 people crammed a high school auditorium to urge the commission, which oversees development near the bay and its tributaries, to reject plans to reclassify nearly 300 acres for a large residential and commercial project called Four Seasons.
The 1,500-unit Four Seasons community would include an age-restricted enclave for senior citizens, an assisted-living center, apartments, condominiums and a major shopping center on a 560-acre parcel - much of it environmentally sensitive property along the Chester River and Cox Creek.
But hundreds of Kent Island residents who have spent much of the last three months opposing the project say Four Seasons is only the most jarring piece of a development boom that threatens to overwhelm schools, roads, and police and fire services. All over the island, well-organized slow-growth activists are tangling with developers and corporations who see opportunity on the gateway to the Eastern Shore. Many residents contend that the county's zoning plan, designed to funnel most growth along the U.S. 50 corridor, is a recipe for the sort of suburban gridlock they left behind.
County planners argue that Queen Anne's comprehensive plan, which designates Stevensville, Chester and the eastern side of Kent Narrows as growth areas, is the best tool to prevent the kind of sprawl that is all too familiar to transplants from the western shore.
With the island divided by U.S. 50 and more than 40 percent of the county's 42,000 people living on the spit of land between Kent Narrows and the bay, residents worry that more development will cause traffic jams on an elaborate network of service roads and overpasses they use to navigate scattered commercial areas that have been built in recent years. Others wonder how the island's volunteer fire and ambulance service can keep pace.
Schools, for years a draw for families moving here, are already strained by an additional 1,000 students who've enrolled in the last five years, says Queen Anne's school Superintendent Bernard J. Sadusky.
With 17 portable classrooms in use at two island elementary schools, the county is planning a new elementary and a new middle school. Built to hold 1,200 students three years ago, Kent Island High School has 1,100 students this fall, Sadusky says.
"We understand that development is going to happen, that it should happen if the county is going to grow, that even [Four Seasons] could legally be done," community activist Bob Foley says. "But there's no way this is sane development."
County planners and Centreville attorney Joseph A. Stevens, who represents the New Jersey-based developer K. Hovanian Companies, say a project like Four Seasons allows for planned development. Without pushing development into designated growth areas, the county likely would experience similar growth, they say, but it would be scattered in areas without access to a planned $22 million wastewater treatment plant and other services.
More sprawl development, Stevens says, would also mean the county would miss out on millions of dollars for roads and other infrastructure improvements the Hovanian company has agreed to provide for Four Seasons, not to mention an estimated $50 million in taxes during the next 20 years.
"The irony is that you're going to get that growth over time; you just don't have control over it," Stevens says. "Typically, you have a 20- or 30- or 80-unit development that sails through the planning process with very little attention. Change is scary. This is a big, important project, regardless of how it comes out. The implications are huge for the county."
The 27-member critical area commission is expected to make a decision on the project Nov. 1. If approved, county officials, who accepted preliminary plans this summer, would begin another round of scrutiny to work out the specifics.
"There is a perception that this is all a done deal," County Commissioner George M. O'Donnell says. "There have been no assurances given to anybody. We understand that people are coming here looking for quality of life, less traffic, cornfields. High density is not something we're used to on the Eastern Shore."
At last week's meeting, speaker after speaker denounced the plan, complaining that the Four Seasons project, which has sparked tentative plans from two other developers for 700- and 300-unit projects nearby, would ruin sensitive marshland that provides habitat for bald eagles, migratory waterfowl and other animals.