Peg Niland's father did not let the lack of a road stop him from building a summer cabin 64 years ago. When the Conowingo Power Co. made lots available for nominal leases in northern Harford County, he chose one on Broad Creek, had lumber tossed from a nearby bridge and then towed it downstream behind his boat.
Niland and her adult children still return every spring to that rustic cabin, the oldest among the remaining 158 seasonal homes that line the Susquehanna River and its creeks just north of the Conowingo Dam. She and her neighbors all still pay the annual ground rent on the parcels to Exelon Generation Co., the successor to the utility that built the hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River.
But the 21st century has caught up to this isolated enclave. Exelon is surveying all 6,000 acres it owns surrounding the dam in preparation for a broad federal regulatory review, which requires inspection of the Harford cottages as well as nearly 250 other cabins in southern Pennsylvania. Many cabins need costly upgrades, everything from new wells and septic systems to safety railings and emergency exits. In most cases, estimates for repairs far exceed $20,000.
The ground rent for the cottages has grown to $2,000 annually — up from $1 a year when the leases began — but the promise of idyllic summers justifies the expense. The hefty renovation bills, however, have led some to question whether they can still afford the luxury of a second home.
"I would sell my house in Bel Air before I would give up this cottage," said Audrey Morrison, who has been skiing, swimming and boating on the river for most of her 70 years. She framed the original lease her father signed more than 60 years ago.
The cost of environmental, structural and safety upgrades, required by the county and the landowner, could prove too costly, especially since the cabins must remain summer homes, a luxury that fewer and fewer people can afford.
"There will be many cabin owners, many of them retirees, who can't afford to improve," Niland said. "Some will have to walk away from the leases."
Niland, who is director of the Harford Land Trust, a preservation group, has the bill of sale for the well her parents installed, but cannot find any record of the permit. For now, she cannot use the water and may have to drill another well.
"We just can't commit until we know the cost," she said. "There is a great deal of angst about all of this for all of us."
Exelon has completed exterior inspections on the cabins, paying consultants about $3,000 for each review, and is starting to look at the interiors.
The Exelon leases stipulate that the homes must remain shuttered from November through March 1. The leases also require cottage owners to comply with all environmental regulations, zoning standards and building codes. Residents cannot dig wells, install septic systems or expand homes without permission from the county.
"This land was originally offered as a recreational opportunity for the community," said Vicky Will, Exelon's vice president for regulatory, environmental and safety issues. "We lease the land with restrictions, most notably that they be seasonal homes. Over the years, we have trusted the lessees to get all permits for any improvements."
Owners cannot sell the cabins and transfer the leases without making the upgrades. Those who abandon derelict structures must pay to raze them and restore the grounds to a natural state. Exelon will then discontinue the lease and the lot will remain empty.
The original utility company made small lots — 50 by 100 feet — available to the community for fishing, hiking and other recreational pursuits more than 80 years ago, when the hydroelectric dam opened on the river.
Many cabins began as primitive fishing shacks that residents helped each other build. Some were only reachable by boat or by long treks from the closest road. People made do with oil lamps, outhouses and water carried from nearby streams.
"They started as really basic shelters, but they kept progressing," said Morrison. "The cottages started evolving and getting better."
If she stays, Morrison will need a new septic tank and a safer walkway. After decades on the river, she said, she may have to abandon a cabin filled with memories of her childhood and her children's. The water skis she made with her father hang on the patio wall, and photos of family gatherings decorate the modest two-bedroom house.
Many cottages have remained in the same family for generations, but others have been sold and the leases transferred. Terry Hanley, aBel Air town commissioner, purchased his four-bedroom cabin about a decade ago.
"This is one of Harford County's best-kept secrets," he said. "All of us want to comply with the regulations and minimize our impact on the environment."
Exelon is determined to bring the cabins up to modern standards for the safety of residents and the protection of the environment, and is committed to continuing the leases wherever possible, its officials said.
The isolation of the cabins — most are by narrow gravel roads, miles from main byways — has enabled some owners to improvise without permits. Eventually, county inspectors took notice. One owner lost his cabin to a fire a few years ago and began to rebuild a modern, two-story structure on the lot. He never bothered with permits. Stop-work orders are posted on the doors and windows.
"Unfortunately, some people have made upgrades without respecting the permitting process, and that will now come back to haunt them," said Monica Marcum, president of the Broad Creek Civic Association, a homeowners group.
She and husband Lew Marcum, who live in Perry Hall, have diligently maintained their 960-square-foot cottage, which her father built nearly 60 years ago, much of it from surplus materials. The ceiling of the living room was once part of the bowling alley at the long-shuttered Fort Holabird in East Baltimore, and the kitchen island began as a desk at Bendix Radio, her father's employer.
"I would come here with my grandmother the day after school closed and stay until the day before school opened," said Monica Marcum, who would later watch her four daughters play along the waterfront. Those young women now bring the Marcums' grandchildren to the cottage.
The Marcums have completed about $20,000 in upgrades, all without altering the original footprint of the cottage and all with the proper permits to comply with environmental, structural and safety standards.
"There is nothing fancy about any of these places, and we have kept ours basic," she said. "They are the Yugos, not the Rolls-Royces of housing."
Each cottage owner has received a copy of the Exelon inspector's report on the exterior. About half of the cottages have undergone interior reviews, mostly to determine structural soundness.
"We didn't find any glaring violations, but most cottages need work and have ongoing issues to address," said Craig Ward, the engineering consultant. "This situation is really unique and these families are working to maintain this oasis that is just a short drive from Bel Air."
Will, the Exelon vice president, said the structural inspection is designed to review all alterations and "make sure the cottages meet all standards to keep residents safe." Potable drinking water and acceptable methods for waste disposal are primary concerns, she said.
"We know of a number of instances where improvements have been made without permits," she said. "We must make sure there are no public health violations."
The owners have received packets outlining options to meet requirements. Owners must submit a compliance plan for any required improvements to Exelon within the next several weeks. They then must secure permits from the county and complete the work by November 2012.
"Exelon has been inclusive and approachable," Monica Marcum said. "Most of the people here are willing to comply, but being financially able is another matter."
Bottled water and a composting toilet system remain options for those who cannot afford modernization.
"Exelon is offering the residents a menu of options to keep the homes in compliance, none of which are unrealistic," she said. "Harford County is working with all of us and making accommodations to the seasonal nature of these homes."
Robert B. Thomas, Harford County spokesman, said the utility company has done an excellent job identifying issues related to the cottages and has been diligent about addressing any problems.
"Exelon is reaching out to these owners, making them aware that they need to be in compliance," Thomas said. "We are working hand-in-hand with Exelon to ensure all applicable codes are met for the safety of these residents as well as the entire community."
The community association has placed a bronze plaque on a rocky hill along the creek. It is dedicated to those "who contributed to the way of life and pleasures that we enjoy today."
"We have to protect this area, play by the rules and do what it takes to keep this way of life," Monica Marcum said as she embraced her 5-year-old grandson. "I want him to come here all his life, too."