Tides of development roil Chesapeake Bay

A peninsula sees land values and jobs rise, but now worries about classroom shortages and a loss of rural traditions.

Here at Maryland's tip, where the Patuxent and Potomac rivers pinch the St Mary's peninsula into a downy marsh and field-scape, Mary Chapin Carpenter was inspired to write the lyrics to "Down in Mary's Land": "Gonna sleep with the stars and a slice of the moon hanging right above my bed/ gonna dream not of things that I've left behind, but those I've found instead/ Down in Mary's Land."

Since 1970, roughly 45,000 people, or double the area's then existing population, have taken those lyrics to heart, seeking the tranquility that rubbed off on Carpenter. But often, rather than leaving dreams of their past lives behind, new arrivals here have brought all their baggage, good and bad, to this county where Maryland dips its finger into the lower Chesapeake Bay.

The resulting debates about sprawl, new schools, and rising property costs mirror a nationwide trend of development reaching ever outward from urban centers, and in this case that trend is transforming a rural peninsula that has long lived in the shadow of the nation's capital.

What some experts describe as "hyperdevelopment" in the metro area surrounding Washington has now stretched down Maryland's Western Shore, to a region whose land, people, and character were once steeped in tobacco farming, oyster harvests, and brackish estuaries.

St. Mary's County still has a rural reputation, but these days it's just as known for the high-tech jobs attached to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, the bedrock of the county economy since the 1970s. An expansion of that facility in the late '90s brought economic benefits that seem obvious on paper: The county's median income climbed by 30 percent, and from 1996-2001 St Mary's had the highest job growth rate in the state.

On the flip side, bland subdivisions, gridlock, and triple-level estates some locals sneeringly dub "McMansions" have all followed new arrivals to Maryland's first county. In 2001, the county planning department issued 472 permits for new dwellings. Another 850 permits were issued the next year, followed by 1,779 in 2003.

In an ideal world, such growth should be matched by careful planning. But in reality, while local governments have tried to define their communities in the face of mass immigration, sometimes those discussions don't materialize until sprawl issues are literally in people's backyards.

In St. Mary's, says Jon Savich, the director of the office of economic and community development, a lot of initial planning was seat-of-the-pants, due to unpredictable growth tied to the Navy base. "We're now grappling with the question of what do we want this community to be."

One of the area's most avid grapplers is Claire Whitbeck, who retired to the county eight years ago and now lives a short distance from the driftwood-laced beaches of the county's tidewater shoreline.

She doesn't miss the irony that the area she moved to for its attractive open spaces increasingly crams children into "relocatable" temporary classrooms as schools run out of space. "Two years ago parents couldn't see this coming," she says, and now kids "are packed in. If kids don't bring their own lunch they often have a hard time getting served and eating lunch by the end of the allotted time."

"All of a sudden we went from being able to meet our school population needs to being short of five schools," adds state Sen. Roy Dyson (D) of St. Mary's, whose last name is synonymous with county roots and small businesses, from Dyson Building Center to Dyson's General Store.

At a February public forum, 65 citizens presented a draft bill for the state Senate that applied solely to the county, tying new development to schools and other public facilities. It was essentially a plea with the state to curb development, and between the lines it criticized what some felt were shady development deals. One section of the bill's rough draft reads "The determination of adequacy [of public facilities] may not rest solely on data provided by development applicants."

Many county landowners are longtime residents who feel strongly connected to the area, and none say they favor economic growth at the price of unchecked sprawl. Rather, they argue they have a right to use their land as they see fit.

"The farmer who has less and less market for his property, how do you tell him 'We're not gonna let you sell this property' [for housing divisions], which may be the only retirement income he has?" asks Jon Wheeler, a local advocate for smart growth.

"That's what makes this all so complicated," says Mr. Savich, the development official. "We're a traditionally rural county and therefore we don't have the land use legislation that exists in older suburban counties."

Yet locals leasing land aren't the sole culprits behind sprawl. Maryland state Delegate John Bohanan (D) of St. Mary's says the very ease of movement in America makes rural areas just another product that can be bought, used up, and tossed like so much consumer waste.

"They're upwardly mobile, and suddenly the rural service package isn't enough," says Mark Muro, a Brookings Institution expert on development.

The solution to the challenges, experts say, hinges on dialogue between newcomers and old-timers. A range of voices must be heard if places like St. Mary's County want to keep from becoming victims of their own success.

"No one has the option to remain the same in America," Mr. Muro says. "In our economy if we want to control our destiny as a community, we have to plan. The one thing we are not permitted to do is nothing."

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