Many people come to this tiny island town of 1,600 residents on the Eastern Shore to escape from the pressures of city life, to enjoy quiet days on the beach, fresh seafood and gentle, golden sunsets across the channel on Assateague Island.
In three months, however, tourists and residents will be able to see another sight near the bridge that joins Chincoteague Island with the wildlife refuge on Assateague: the golden arches of a McDonald's restaurant.
The prospect of a national fast food chain has shaken the natural peace of Chincoteague and has left a split between the new residents and tourists who shudder at the thought of a McDonald's and the natives who welcome a taste of city life.
It is a debate that has surfaced in the island's newspaper, the Chincoteague Chronicle, and in the numerous restaurants and gift shops along Main Street. Last week, however, those opposed to the fast food restaurant acknowledged final defeat when bulldozers broke ground and workers ripped down about 200 trees on the site of the restaurant.
"I've been coming to Chincoteague for 20 years now, and I came here to live and open this shop six years ago," said Patricia McGuire, who owns Island Arts. "I've come to love this island because it is unspoiled. Every place I've been to has been destroyed by development. Everyone is outraged that this could happen to such a nice little community."
McGuire is what natives refer to as a "come here" -- someone not born on the island. It does not matter if a resident moved here at the age of 3 -- anyone not born here will always be a foreigner.
As a result, natives are resentful of the group of new residents and tourists who oppose the fast food restaurant and who, as Mayor Anthony Stasio remarked, "want the island for their own personal private playground."
Change has been coming slowly to Chincoteague, where grassy marshes frame the island's docks and fishing boats bring back loads of drumfish and trout. Along Maddox Boulevard, popularly known as Beach Drive, new additions include real estate offices, restaurants and even a Wet 'n' Wild amusement park. But McGuire called the McDonald's "a turning point."
At the D.C. Edgarston Co. Seafood Market on Main Street, a group of retired men sat quietly in lawn chairs one day last week, watching the cars go over the bridges and listening to the seagulls that were flying over the channels.
"I like the idea of McDonald's -- it will be a big help to the island," said Burt Savage, 68, who has lived here all his life. "But I don't like tourists coming in here and dictating what we should do. They shouldn't complain about it."
Harold Derrickson Sr., 70, a stocky man with mischievous blue eyes, shook his head slowly. "They say they don't want change," he said of the people he calls foreigners. "But this place has been changing already for the past 20 years . . . it used to be so much prettier."
"Yeah," interrupted James Moore, 65, "but you gotta remember, you looked prettier then, too," and the group burst into laughter.
One of the objections raised by recently arrived residents, who are loosely organized into a group called Friends of Chincoteague, is that the McDonald's building will mar the view of Assateague, where 150 wild ponies roam. On Wednesday and Thursday, the ponies will be herded across the channel for the annual pony penning, a ritual that draws thousands of tourists and has made Chincoteague famous.
"Almost the last thing before the tourists get to the beach on Assateague will be those golden arches," said Ina Rea Adams, 43, who works at the Birchwood Motel on Main Street.
A representative from the McDonald's Corp. said the company has agreed to reduce the size of the road sign. D. Suzy Hawkins, a representative from McDonald's regional office in Fairfax, said the sign will be reduced to "less than one-third of what zoning would allow."
Aside from esthetic concerns, residents fear that visitors will strew the fast food paper and Styrofoam containers around Assateague.
"I can envision Assateague choked with trash," said Claire Lott, 59, who owns Lott's Arts and Things. "The company has been so insensitive to the view of the marsh and channel."
"I can just see the animals eating the Styrofoam," added Mary Dietch, who lives next door to Lott.
But what is most upsetting to the opponents of the fast food restaurant is that McDonald's symbolizes the outside world's invasion.
Michael Bailey, the franchise owner, could not be reached for comment. But Hawkins pointed to the fact that Bailey owns McDonald's restaurants in nearby Onley, Va., and Pocomoke City, Md., as proof that he is a local businessman.
"We're not sure people understand the total nature of this business -- McDonald's is a local individual businessman or woman running their operation," she said. "We just provide the resources."
Reggie Birch, 33, is one of the few natives who is opposed to the McDonald's.
"The island's changing all the time," said Birch, who works for an insurance company and carves decoys part time. "This just isn't the best thing for Chincoteague."
Long after McDonald's is constructed and the parking lot is paved, the natives' quiet resentment of the visitors is expected to linger. The issue has made the split "wider than before," said Stasio.
Longtime resident Martha Leonard said that not enough credit has been given to the islanders to make the right decision. Leonard, who owns the Refuge Motel next to the site of the McDonald's, said she is content that the company has done its share to respect the environment. But she also said she is troubled by the out-of-towners who think that residents are too uninformed to make decisions for themselves.
"We sort of resent visitors sometimes because they come from a place larger than this and they think everybody is ignorant," said Leonard, 60. "But people are not ignorant here at all. We have a lot of common sense. Having a McDonald's there is better than a condominium. Our isolation has taught us how to fend for ourselves."