LITTLE ORLEANS - A proposal to build 4,300 homes in a forested mountain valley near here has triggered debate over whether the development would be an economic shot in the arm for struggling Allegany County or an unwelcome intrusion of suburbia into the rural reaches of Western Maryland.
If approved, Terrapin Run would be the largest housing development ever in Allegany, a county where only about 100 new homes are built a year. The nearest town, Little Orleans, had fewer than 700 residents in the 2000 census.
It also would open a new frontier in the westward march of suburbanites in Maryland. Washington County, just east of here, has become the fifth-fastest-growing locality in the state, driven in part by families moving in from neighboring Frederick seeking more affordable homes.
Targeting retirees and long-distance commuters, the developer of Terrapin Run, PDC Inc., has outlined plans to build a recreation-oriented community complete with a riding stable, a shopping plaza and an extensive network of wooded trails next to a state forest.
"Little Johnny can ride his bike out here, just like he did when we were kids, and [so can] little Susie," said Michael A. Carnock, 43, the principal of the Columbia-based development firm. He said he hopes his project will attract the "active elderly" and families unfazed by driving an hour or more to work in Hagerstown or Frederick.
Unveiled last month, the project has won support from county officials and business interests, who see it as key to rebuilding a local economy still scarred by factory closings in the 1980s and 1990s that put thousands out of work.
"We need change," County Commissioner Barbara Roque said yesterday, "to keep young people here, to give employment to local contractors and to attract businesses to this area."
But the proposal has split county residents. Opponents warn that suburban-style development here will degrade environmentally sensitive streams, jam the winding two-lane scenic highway running by it and undermine the tourism and outdoor recreation that are a growing share of Allegany's economy.
Dozens turned out Wednesday night to protest at a planning commission meeting in Cumberland, the county seat, more than 20 miles away.
The Terrapin Run project "turns Smart Growth on its head," contended Jackie Sams, president of the local League of Women Voters, referring to the anti-sprawl policy that Maryland adopted in the late 1990s. Smart Growth aims to encourage development in and around existing communities.
Sams questioned the wisdom of building so many houses far from jobs, in an area lacking public water and sewer, with the nearest high school 30 miles away.
"Rural character is something to be valued and preserved. It is not easy, or in some cases even possible, to reclaim it once it is gone," said Tom Mathews, a spokesman for Citizens for Smart Growth in Allegany County.
While its scale might be controversial, the proposed development is not all that surprising to many residents here, who have watched suburbia spread outward from Baltimore and Washington over the years.
"It's the westward run of the Washington [D.C.] metropolitan area," said Anirban Basu, chief executive officer of Sage Policy Group, an economic consulting firm in Baltimore.
Basu, who has been hired to help Carnock's firm, said its proposed Terrapin Run is a byproduct of development restrictions imposed in more suburban counties, which have created a pent-up demand for housing: "Forcing people to move to eastern Allegany County demonstrates many counties have not embraced Smart Growth."
With chronically high joblessness and a declining population - under 74,000 - in Allegany, county officials have been striving for years to attract new businesses that might replace the lost manufacturing jobs. The county was jilted recently in its bid to land a Pepsi-Cola plant on the site of a Shriners club.
Allegany's chances of landing a large corporation would be helped by development of new, upscale housing, county officials contend.
Some residents, particularly those who now make long commutes to work on construction projects elsewhere, also welcome the development.
"We need the revenue. We need the jobs. We need people to spend their money here," said Randy Appel, a heavy-equipment operator whose home is near the proposed community.
But others whose livelihood depends on tourism and outdoor recreation worry that when the development is completed, its estimated 10,000 new residents would alter the area's rural character and drive their business away.
"I'm not opposed to this [site] being developed - I am opposed to the density," said David Reusing, who with his wife, Donna, runs the Town Hill bed and breakfast atop a ridge along scenic U.S. 40 with a majestic view of the valley.
Reusing, a building contractor who has worked in Anne Arundel County, says that while his 29-room historic inn probably would see increased business with nearby development, he questions the availability of water for that many homes and worries about the overall impact on the community of a project of this scale.
The area around the proposed development already has seen some growth, said David Trail, a retired park service employee whose 130-acre cattle farm abuts the Terrapin Run site.
A third-generation farmer here, Trail said he helped his father build some of the more than 100 homes in the area that he tallied on a recent survey - many of them bought by people from metropolitan areas seeking the rural life.
But Trail said he worries about the availability of water in the driest spot in Maryland - where cactus actually grow in the wild - and about traffic tie-ups on country roads if the planned community gets built.
"There are going to be some disappointed people, in my view," he said. "They're going to move from one congested area to another."
The Nature Conservancy, which owns a 784-acre preserve in Allegany, also is concerned about the potential that the development could harm an endangered plant, Harperella, that grows in Fifteen Mile Creek about a mile and a half south. Terrapin Run, the stream for which the development is named, flows from the site into Fifteen Mile Creek.
Harperella, which grows only in about 10 places worldwide, might be affected by mud washed into the stream, said Donnelle Keech, Allegany Forest Project manager for the conservation group.
Carnock counters that his project will be environmentally sensitive and beneficial to the surrounding community.
"We're going to have hundreds of acres of open space - that's what Smart Growth is," he said yesterday while showing the 1,000-acre tract.
Once proposed as the site for an auto racetrack, the woods have been logged recently to remove the largest, most valuable trees. But Carnock said he plans to cluster the housing and shopping and leave 40 percent of the land undeveloped.
Carnock said that while ground water can be a problem in the area, test wells he has had drilled have found plenty of water. He also pledged to build a wastewater treatment plant to handle household sewage once a few hundred homes get built - until then, they would rely on septic systems.
July public hearing
Already endorsed by the county planning commission, the project faces a hearing July 6 before the board of zoning appeals for its proposed housing density. It also must clear state reviews of its water and wastewater plans.
State planning officials charged with carrying out Maryland's Smart Growth policy have taken no position on the project, noting that local officials have the prerogative to decide where and how their county can grow.
"Many aspects of this sound like a good development," said Charles Gates, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Planning. Building homes on small lots, with trails for walking and shopping nearby, are all tenets of Smart Growth, he said.
But the project's proposed location in a rural area along a scenic highway and dependent on hard-to-find ground water "would be cause for concern and scrutiny," he said.