Two decades ago, the town of Trappe voted overwhelmingly to grow. As a wave of suburbanization spread across Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore, the tiny community annexed more than 900 acres so a developer could build some 2,500 homes — five times more than still stand in Trappe today.
Now, that vision of Trappe is just starting to become reality. Banners along what is otherwise a quiet stretch of U.S. Route 50 invite passersby to look at new homes, for sale and lease, at Lakeside at Trappe. There’s no lake just yet, but nearly a dozen homes have begun to rise from the dirt.
And yet the town’s future remains the focus of a debate that’s neither changed much nor calmed down since Trappe first embraced the planned transformation. Whether the town can become what it proposes remains an open question reverberating among residents, environmentalists and state and local officials — and now in the courts.
Town leaders say they need the growth to afford upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities and to pay for debt on their existing less-than-state-of-the-art system. They question why the Lakeside project is raising such concern when nearby Easton, for example, sprawled with less fervent criticism.
But outsiders cite a cascade of reasons to oppose the Lakeside development: Fears of Chesapeake Bay pollution from subpar sewage treatment and a plan to spray treated wastewater on cropland, as well as accusations of mismanagement by state environmental regulators; questions about what powers local governments like Trappe’s can and should have; a feared loss of rural character, and a new precedent for rapid growth.
“I get it; it’s going to definitely change the town,” Trappe Town Councilman Brian Schmidt said. “Hopefully, it’ll change it for the better.”
Trappe is little more than a blip on Route 50′s west side, about halfway between Easton and Cambridge. What started as a “crossroads hamlet” in the mid-1700s, according to Talbot’s tourism office, is a community of little more than 1,000 people. It spreads across 3 square miles, with a few convenience stores, several churches, a coffee shop and houses with flower pots on shady porches.
In April 2003, residents decided it was time for that to change. They voted 246-94 — more than half of Trappe’s 635 eligible voters turned out, according to The Star Democrat of Easton — to extend the town’s boundaries by 924 acres and across the other side of Route 50.
It was a welcome mat for Virginia company Rocks Engineering and Easton-based RAUCH Inc., which proposed a massive, planned community of homes, apartments and shops. As they do today, town officials said the growth was needed to boost tax revenue. And, as they do today, they faced criticism.
At the time, the state had started trying to replace suburban sprawl with a concept known as “smart growth.” RAUCH President Robert Rauch described the project in that context in the fall of 2003 to The Baltimore Sun.
“This looks like the definition of Smart Growth,” he said.
The debate faded and the plans languished amid the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. But the project wasn’t dead, it was simply moribund.
At one point in 2018, the Hogan Cos., an Annapolis real estate firm of which Republican Gov. Larry Hogan owns a 47.5% stake, began marketing the site for interest from potential buyers, according to an archived version of the company’s website. Hogan Cos. shopped the exclusive listing under the name “Easton Overlook,” with multiple phases of development, starting with initial sections of 250 lots for single-family homes, townhomes and “villa products.”
The company’s involvement raised an eyebrow for Dan Watson, founder of a citizens group called the Talbot Integrity Project, because the development has received and awaits additional approvals from the Maryland Department of the Environment.
But there is no sign of any active connection between the governor’s company and the project. Jacob Ermer, executive vice president for the company, said the Hogan Cos. never landed a deal for the project and its listing agreement ended later in 2018.
Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said that under an agreement between the governor and the State Ethics Commission, Hogan would not have had any involvement in or knowledge of any relationship between his company and the Lakeside project. His stake in the business is in a blind trust, managed by trustees who include Ermer. There is no record of any business entity tied to Lakeside among a list of Hogan’s investments that he discloses to the commission each year.
Land records show that entities related to Rocks Engineering and RAUCH still own the properties they cobbled together for the project some two decades ago — and where homebuilder Brookfield Residential recently started construction on the first set of homes. Ryan Showalter, an attorney for the companies, said they are waiting on a decision from Maryland environmental regulators on the project’s plans for sewage treatment.
The Lakeside at Trappe website says new homes will be available for lease this fall.
As they are completed, the opposition continues to simmer.
Chief among critics’ complaints is the potential environmental impact. The town and developers’ plan is for the first 120 homes to temporarily connect to Trappe’s wastewater treatment plant.
Town officials say the plant has capacity to take on that additional waste, though they acknowledge it isn’t up to the state-of-the-art treatment standards required of new plants. The expense of maintaining and upgrading the plant is exactly why Trappe needs to grow its tax base, the officials say.
Trappe has more than doubled its basic monthly sewer fee to help pay down debt, from $25 per household in 2016 to $55 today. A financial auditor told town leaders in late 2020 that the sewage plant was worth less than the $1.5 million in outstanding debt on the facility, The Star Democrat reported.
Environmentalists fear the additional sewage will further degrade an already impaired La Trappe Creek, which flows west from the town into the Choptank River.
But that isn’t their only concern. There is the plan for the Lakeside development to eventually rely on a new wastewater plant, one that will use a controversial technology that involves spraying treated wastewater on cropland. (Solid waste would be separated out first; it is commonly sold and used to make household garden fertilizers.)
There are a few dozen similar wastewater treatment systems, known as spray irrigation systems, around the state. But critics say few are close to the scale proposed for Trappe’s, which would dump the equivalent of several inches of rain a week on fields around the edge of the development.
Alan Girard, Eastern Shore director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the fear is that allowing the spray irrigation facility to proceed unchallenged could set a precedent that makes such projects a popular alternative to traditional wastewater treatment.
When the Maryland Department of the Environment initially approved a key permit for the wastewater system, it suggested the technology meant virtually no pollution would reach streams or the Chesapeake Bay, instead filtering out through the land. Though the department said its analysis was based in science, bay foundation scientists question whether that can be true.
“We could have developments served by spray irrigation systems popping up all over Maryland,” Girard said.
The foundation and some residents filed a lawsuit last year asking a judge to weigh in, arguing the Maryland Department of the Environment awarded a permit without adequately proving the spray irrigation system won’t harm the Chesapeake. And they won, at least temporarily. The state was directed to provide more opportunity for public comment, including at an October hearing that attracted hundreds of concerned residents. Department officials have said a fresh decision on the permit is expected this month.
However, Watson, the Talbot Integrity Project and several residents have filed another lawsuit seeking to stop the project. It focuses on the initial phase of construction. They argue the state should not have approved the plan to allow those first homes to connect to Trappe’s wastewater plant because that goes against Talbot County’s comprehensive plan, a long-term document used to guide decisions on growth and zoning.
Last fall, the Talbot County Planning Commission reversed an earlier finding and decided the sewage connection wasn’t consistent with the comprehensive plan. The lawsuit argues that means construction on the development cannot proceed, even with approvals from the County Council and state environmental agency.
Doug Firth, one of the plaintiffs, grew up on the farmland where he lives now, at the edge of Trappe. He said he has only seen the health of the La Trappe Creek get worse in his lifetime. He no longer fishes there like he did as a boy.
“The water’s changed,” Firth said. “It’s not the same color.”
A Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman said the agency has reviewing the claims in the lawsuit. Showalter could not be reached for comment on the latest lawsuit.
And then there are the broader concerns about what a dramatic change the Lakeside development would mean for a stretch of Talbot County that historically has remained quaint and quiet.
While a narrow majority of the County Council supported the Lakeside project, there is a vocal minority that suggests what Trappe is doing hurts the county at large. When Trappe grows, it will be county taxpayers who are responsible for the cost of new roads, schools and greater public safety, said Dirck Bartlett, a Republican who served on the council from 2006 through 2018.
“If you can have little towns grow like this, it makes smart growth a ridiculous concept,” Bartlett said.
Republican County Councilwoman Laura Price questions whether it’s fair that Trappe can choose to grow at the county’s expense. She’s considering whether state law on municipal annexation gives too much power to towns.
“Something needs to be fixed. This shouldn’t have happened,” said Price, who also serves as president of the board of the Maryland Association of Counties. “Maybe the ship has sailed for Talbot County, but other jurisdictions need to look out for this.”
Trappe leaders maintain that the Lakeside development will grow gradually and responsibly, helping a town with little commercial activity become more economically relevant and viable. They say impact fees to be levied on the developers for each unit of housing will help cover the costs of wastewater upgrades and public safety.
“This is going to help the town grow at a slow pace,” Town Council President Nicholas Newnam said. “We’re not looking for the development to be done in five years.”
And they continue to question why other Eastern Shore towns can grow and change, but Trappe must remain the same. Census estimates suggest the town’s population is virtually unchanged since 2000. Over the same stretch, the county seat of Easton grew by more than 40%.
“To me, that’s sprawl,” Schmidt, the Trappe councilman, said of Easton’s piecemeal growth.
Trappe, on the other hand, has a clearer vision of what it will be in 20 years, he said. It includes a bustling new east side of town with bike paths, shops, dog parks and a 30-acre lake.
“To me,” Schmidt said, “this is wholeheartedly planned.”