HEBRON -- This rural crossroads is not the place Tammi Knight knew growing up. The little town of white clapboard houses has drawn newcomers who travel to jobs in Salisbury or farther. Now, with developers calling, an even bigger wave of change that is buffeting much of the Eastern Shore threatens to land at her doorstep.
Waiting tables or cooking on the breakfast shift at the Hebron Family Restaurant, Knight hears all the chatter about shriveled corn and blistering summer temperatures. But these days, the talk invariably turns to Hebron's future - and whether its 1,000 or so residents want to be a small town or a small city.
Town commissioners have fueled the debate by approving a long-term comprehensive plan that critics say in 25 years could boost the population sevenfold - to 7,600, nearly the size of Cambridge - and guide commercial development to busy U.S. Route 50.
In the meantime, officials are negotiating with a developer who's interested in carrying out some of those ideas on a 403-acre farm.
Like many, Knight thinks there's little that can be done to halt development, even if residents wanted to. State officials predict that 160,000 or more new residents are headed for the Eastern Shore in the next 20 years, and towns throughout the region are entertaining proposals for big new housing developments to hold them.
"When I was a kid, I delivered newspapers, and I knew everybody in town," said Knight. "It's not really that small town anymore. There's development all around Hebron already."
Local officials say the taxes from new homes and businesses could pay for increased services in a town that needs them. They'd like Hebron to have its own police force, a new sewage treatment plant, and more money for fire and emergency services.
"We see all this growth in the Delmar, Salisbury, Fruitland corridor and other parts of the county, and we see it beginning to seep west toward us," said John Holston Jr., chairman of the town planning commission. "It would definitely be a boost for our tax base, especially commercial development. We're taking a hard look at all this."
But opponents of the proposed development worry about the environmental impact of unprecedented growth, especially on nearby Rewastico and Quantico creeks, which drain into the Nanticoke and Wicomico rivers.
"I'm not so naive that I think there won't be any development, but we can't go from a sleepy town to a megalopolis," said Ralph Harcum, 81, a farmer whose land has been in his family since 1873. "I'm not a tree-hugging man, but we can't keep using the bay like a slop jar."
The plan has been criticized by the state's Department of Planning, Wicomico County planners and environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. A group of residents and neighbors who live outside town limits have filed a protest with Hebron's appeals board.
"What concerns me is their rush," said Barry Johansson, president of the Wicomico Environmental Trust, another opponent. "I don't understand the hurry."
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was sharply critical of the abbreviated comprehensive plan, which left out key elements, including details on water and sewer and police and fire services.
The foundation compiled a two-page fact sheet that said the proposal "fails to plan for measured, orderly growth and ensure the protection of resource lands and water quality."
According to the environmental group, the plan would encourage a 26 percent growth rate that would require an eightfold increase in water and sewer capacity.
Opponents fear that the newly adopted plan will ease the way for a Delaware development company that has proposed building more than 1,600 homes, including townhouses and condominiums, along with 450,000 square feet of commercial space on the 403-acre tract along U.S. 50.
The Waller Landing development is temporarily on hold because Wicomico County has imposed a five-year freeze on rezoning the property, which was annexed by Hebron in 2005. Such a freeze is the one trump card county governments have when trying to slow growth by chartered municipalities.
The town, like all of Maryland's local governments, must file an updated comprehensive plan by October 2009. But Hebron's five-member town commission approved an incomplete document they say gives them a head start while they work to complete the remainder of the plan before the filing deadline.
Town Commission President David L. Hooper said the town has grown frustrated over the years as a half-dozen developments were built on nearby farmland outside town limits - projects that violate the state's Smart Growth credo meant to encourage development in areas with water, sewer and other public services.
"We have development knocking on the door, and we have to tell them we can't deal with it yet," Hooper said. The comprehensive plan, he said, means "we're moving the whole town ahead, with us controlling land use."
Wicomico County Executive Richard M. Pollitt Jr., a former town manager, said he worries about paying for services and infrastructure when the county currently imposes impact fees to pay for school construction.
"We've all kind of been overwhelmed with the development that's come our way in the last 10 years," Pollitt said.
State officials are watching, says Maryland planning director Richard E. Hall, a Salisbury native.
"We're not opposed to growth, but this looks excessive," Hall said. "At this stage, we've tried to work with the town."
The state doesn't have the power to actually stop a local government's plans, but the governor could choose to withhold money for needed roads, schools, other infrastructure and pet local projects.
"We do have the power of the pocketbook," Hall said. "Really, it's all about trying to encourage Smart Growth instead of sprawl."