CHESTERTOWN --The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, which has helped preserve 40,000 acres of the region's farmland and forests since its founding in 1990, is asking for ideas about developing parts of a 500-acre tract on the doorstep of this Colonial-era waterfront village.
Organizers say a new land-use planning project could become a model for Chestertown and other small towns facing increasing pressure to annex adjacent parcels and accommodate large-scale development.
Starting tomorrow, the town of 4,800 residents is due for what organizers describe as a weeklong "charrette." The elaborate community brainstorming session was organized through a three-way partnership of the conservancy, the town and Kent County, which split the $57,000 fee of national consulting firm Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative, which will lead the exercise.
Virtually anything is open for discussion in master planning sessions - including roads and other infrastructure, population density, police and fire services, the aesthetics of architecture and housing styles, open space for recreation and protection of the nearby Chester River.
"The idea is that everybody in town comes to this with a totally clean palate," said Rob Etgen, the land conservancy's executive director. "We have a great opportunity to look at annexation and Smart Growth from the inside out. It's led by the community, not something that's brought to the town by developers. We're asking people to dream about their future."
Eric J. Meyers, a vice president for the Conservation Fund, a national land-preservation group, said the trick has always been to support sustainable development along with environmental protection.
"We're open to looking at limited development as a means of creating conservation opportunities. We've always thought it is a way to balance development and environmental protection," Meyers said.
Nearly a year ago, Chestertown officials rejected a developer's proposal requesting an annexation that would have cleared the way for 900 to 1,500 homes, doubling the number of houses in the 300-year-old town.
Etgen described the proposal as "the same train wreck we've seen all over the Shore," and the conservancy quickly put up a $300,000 option on the site, an agreement that will require the sale of the property to a developer willing to accept the master plan created by residents.
"There's absolutely nothing that requires us to do anything," Mayor Margo Bailey said. "Certainly, a lot of people here think we shouldn't annex anything. But it's not something we can ignore. It's not just Chestertown, it's every little town in Kent County that could be overwhelmed."
Bailey says a similar community planning exercise in 1996 resulted in a half-dozen projects in the historic downtown business district, including a new, accessible riverfront and a visitors center, along with grants for demolishing derelict buildings and restoring others, moves that have shifted attention to the town's biggest assets.
"There's nothing new about a participatory planning process for things to be hashed out in advance, and people have a chance to define the character of the town," said David Mayfield, president of the National Town Builders Association, a group whose members are noted for environmentally sensitive projects that maintain a town's architecture and character.
James R. Gatto, a retired state planner who is chairman of Chestertown's planning commission, said that with the Shore's population soaring, small towns need long-range planning.
"You can stop growth for a while, but 10 years later, it's going to look like chaos," Gatto said. "We have two other annexations in the works right now. The big concern is whether it's too much too soon. We're trying to create a blueprint."
Beyond the town's needs, says Karen McJunkin, a Virginia developer who has been involved in several projects on the Eastern Shore, the plan that emerges from the weeklong study has to leave room for developers to turn a profit.
"Any development approval process includes a wide array of people; a charrette condenses that process," McJunkin said. "It's a great idea, but it has to be buildable and marketable."
Edward T. McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a development think tank, credits the land conservancy for involving local government in "conservation development," a new tactic. The conservancy has made its reputation through the use of easements to protect farmland and other open space.
"The question isn't just how we get Smart Growth in and around existing communities without overwhelming what makes them attractive in the first place," McMahon said. "It's a question of how do we get development that is consistent with the character of the town.
"All new houses seem to be beige, tan, putty or taupe with garages sticking out the front," he said. "In Chestertown, people are saying that they need something that resembles what's been there for 300 years."