Planned Development Prompts Fears of Chesapeake Congestion

Geese take flight near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, downriver from the site of a proposed development that could nearly double the population of Cambridge.
Geese take flight near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, downriver from the site of a proposed development that could nearly double the population of Cambridge. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006

On spongy land near a muddy river on Maryland's Eastern Shore lie a thousand vacant acres and a battle that invites this question: How many people should live on the Chesapeake Bay?

If the city of Cambridge has its way, a new residential golf course development overlooking the Little Blackwater River will lure 10,000 new residents -- nearly doubling the city's population -- over the next two decades. For Cambridge leaders, Blackwater Resort means needed tax revenue and new life for a hard-luck area that hasn't grown much in three decades.

But the view from across the bay, at the headquarters of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is different. Environmentalists there see an outsize development that would be built upriver from a wildlife refuge considered a national treasure, adding more sewage and polluted runoff to an already unhealthy bay.

The foundation has launched a campaign, drawing thousands of signatures, letters and e-mails from as far up the Chesapeake watershed as New York, to urge Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to stop the project, which has gained a number of key approvals. The fray has spawned at least two slow-growth bills in the state legislature, even as development plans inch forward.

The fight, both sides say, hinges on the difference between how many new residents are good for Cambridge and how many are good for the bay.

People -- their waste, industry, roads and cars -- are a chief enemy of the nation's largest estuary. The federal government and jurisdictions around the bay, including Maryland, Virginia and the District, have spent billions over three decades to restore it, but the tide of new residents threatens the effort. Between 1950 and 2000, the population in the bay's watershed -- a 64,000-square-mile drainage basin that stretches from Virginia to New York -- soared from 8 million to 15 million.

About 100,000 people move into the massive watershed region every year.

So far, scientists have no clear idea how many people it would take to overwhelm the bay eventually or how few would ensure its health. The Chesapeake Bay Program, a consortium of federal and state governments leading the cleanup, is working on a model to help guide development, but results are years away.

"The population increases by about a million every 10 years. Is that fast? Is that slow? Is that good? Is that bad? I don't know," said Lee Epstein, who studies growth issues at the nonprofit bay foundation. "We already may be at the place where the bay can't take too many more people."

One recent morning, the waters under the Malkus bridge into Cambridge shivered dull green. The underwater visibility there, watermen say, is five inches. Before World War II, seafood and packing companies made Cambridge a busy company town, fed on bounty from the bay. Then came lower harvests and layoffs, and race riots in the 1960s. To hear the local people tell it, that was the last time Cambridge got anybody's notice.

For three decades, Dorchester County residents watched the commuters and the summer people spread wealth to the counties around them. Then, slowly, modest salvation came in the form of a new Hyatt conference center, a couple of subdivisions -- and plans for Blackwater Resort Communities, a 3,200-unit project that promises to boost the tax base by as much as $1 billion. In 2004, the city annexed a 1,080-acre farm along the Little Blackwater River for the project, which has won several rounds of city and county approval.

"In 1960, the city of Cambridge had 12,500 people. Forty years later, that population had dwindled to below 11,000," Cambridge Mayor Cleveland L. Rippons said.

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