TYASKIN - The Wetipquin Bridge is a throwback, a shaky wooden span over a small creek that just about everyone agrees needs to be replaced.
But how tall should it be? That question has prompted dueling petitions, accusations and general confusion in this marshy community outside Salisbury. And the answer could help determine whether the town of about 300 remains a quiet haven for kayakers or becomes a more developed destination for power boaters and others.
Wicomico County officials set out to replace the bridge at its current height of about six feet above the creek. But several upriver residents want it rebuilt at 15 feet so that their large boats can pass underneath.
Other homeowners are pushing for a middle ground - 12 feet - so that emergency vessels and midsize boats can travel up the creek. And the Coast Guard wants the county to consider all of the alternatives before deciding.
"I'm not sure I really trust anybody. The whole thing is odd to me," said Judith Stribling, president of the Friends of the Nanticoke River, an environmental group pressing for a low bridge. "I wish I knew what was really going on."
The saga began last year when county officials decided they had to replace the deteriorating span over Wetipquin Creek. They lined up about $1 million, then applied for permits with agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment. When the permits came through in April, the county staff began preparing to do the work.
But before the project could begin, waterman Billy Hoy called the Coast Guard's 5th District in Norfolk, Va., and told bridge management specialist Bill Brazier that because the creek was navigable, the county needed a Coast Guard permit to replace it.
Moreover, he said, he and his son, also a waterman, couldn't get their fishing boats through at the current height, making the dock on their waterfront property unusable for their livelihood.
Brazier looked at the property. Then he told Wicomico County public works officials that the county did need a Coast Guard permit. He recommended that the county look at the 15-foot alternative that several homeowners requested.
The verdict surprised public works director P. Rai Sharma, who said he had never dealt with the Coast Guard to replace a county bridge.
"I asked them, 'Why does it have to be that high?'" Sharma said. "There's nothing but wetlands over there, the way I look at it."
The county had obtained federal money to cover 80 percent of replacing the 1959 bridge at its current height. Making it taller would cost at least a million dollars more, and the county - which has a revenue limit - doesn't have matching funds for such a project.
"It's millions and millions more, all at the taxpayers' expense. And who's going to pay for it?" asked Ed Heatwole, the county's civil engineer. "Why do you need a high bridge on a shallow river?"
The issue has fueled rumors of development. There is talk that Hoy wants to build a marina, that his neighbors might subdivide and that the tiny creek will soon be crowded with powerboats.
Hoy, who said he moved from Baltimore County to escape such pressures, bristles at the gossip.
"Why would I want to move way down here for seclusion and then develop it?" Hoy asked. "All I would like to be able to do is get my boat up there."
Hoy's neighbors across the creek, Wynn and Susan Bowman, also favor raising the bridge, but they would like to have it at 12 feet so that the volunteer fire department's boat could get up the creek.
With so many kayaks, canoes and personal watercraft such as Jet Skis using the creek, the Bowmans said, they think the county ought to consider safety.
The Bowmans say they called the county several times to discuss having a public meeting but never heard back. Frustrated, they placed a petition in the local convenience store asking area residents to sign if they wanted the bridge raised so that the fire-rescue boat could pass.
Nearly 100 people signed it, among them the fire chief.
But Sharma received a letter from the fire department president stating that a 6-foot bridge would suit the department's purposes if the county installed an access ramp.
Stribling of Friends of the Nanticoke River said elevating the bridge would destroy pristine wetlands that are a significant habitat for fiddler crabs, muskrats and otters. The Tyaskin resident and Salisbury University ecology professor said the Coast Guard is insisting on the higher bridge "because they can" and that some homeowners are motivated by their property values and access.
"There's not enough money for schoolbooks, so we're going to spend $1 million so two people can get their boats up at high tide?" Stribling said. "My sense is that there's an underlying reason the homeowners want this to happen, and I don't think it's the safety of the kayakers. Realtors are swarming around here. ... Everybody wants their piece."
Stribling, too, put a petition at the local convenience store, but he said it disappeared.
Eventually, said Brazier, the bridge management specialist, the Coast Guard received petitions on both sides, with nearly 100 signatures each.
Even some on the high-bridge side say they see merit in both arguments.
"I have mixed feelings," said local attorney John Seipp, who owns property near the creek and signed the Bowmans' petition. "It's possible, if you put a bridge up, that there will be a huge increase in traffic."
Now, because the county lacks authority to replace the bridge at six feet and doesn't want to replace it at 15 feet, the permit is on hold while officials look into whether it can be repaired. It's not the middle ground that others were seeking.
"I don't want this bridge patched up," said Wicomico County Councilman Edward Taylor, who grew up near the creek and remembers the years before the bridge, when he helped pull a ferry across.
Brazier, who manages bridge projects from New Jersey to South Carolina, said he has spent a lot of time answering questions from congressional aides about the tiny bridge.
For the sake of the little yellow school bus and the other vehicles that cross the bridge every day, neighbors on both sides agree that at the least, repairs must be made soon.
The Bowmans say one good result of the bridge debate is that they have met their neighbors and learned that, contrary to rumors, none stated plans to develop property.
"That's what petrifies people here, and it petrifies me too," Wynn Bowman said. "But I don't think it has to be black and white. Nobody wants to talk about the in-between."