EWELL, MD. -- A new idea has come to Smith Island, and it sounds foreign when spoken in the curious tangle of English accents distinctive to this Chesapeake Bay island.


Much of the modern world already has arrived in Smith Island, charted in 1657 but still accessible to most of the world only by a 40-minute ferry ride from the Eastern Shore fishing port of Crisfield. The kids here wear Reeboks and buzz around town on Honda motor scooters, and satellite dishes are becoming as common as screened porches.

But it is the proposal for condos -- 100 luxury town houses with tennis courts and a swimming pool -- that has some residents worried about their changing way of life and has environmentalists on guard against the development of one of the bay's most remote and fragile islands.

The condo plan received preliminary approval last week from the Somerset County zoning board, but still must secure numerous permits before it can become a reality. And it faces strong opposition from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental organization that is asking Gov. William Donald Schaefer's administration to review the project. The foundation says the Smith Island development is contrary to the state's critical areas plan, which seeks to limit development along the bay, and is a perfect example of when the state must step in to regulate a local project.

Not surprisingly, the developers disagree.

"You would think, from the way the opponents are talking, this was some virgin site that no one had ever set foot on," said Steve Smethurst, a Salisbury lawyer who represents a retired Delaware teacher and four island watermen who are the project's developers.

"I think they are picking the wrong fight."

Developers versus environmentalists, outsiders versus lifelong residents -- it's an old story as the population expands and the wealthy look for unspoiled retreats.

But the case of Pitchcroft, as the complex is to be called, is unique because of its setting.

Smith Island is actually an archipelago, the wide mouth of the Potomac across the Chesapeake on one side, Maryland's Eastern Shore on the other. The first English inhabitants of this string of islands were dissenters who crossed the bay from St. Mary's. Most everyone here (population in 1980 was around 500 and dwindling) is named Evans, Bradshaw, Tyler, Smith or Whitelock.

"We're all related one way or another," said 69-year-old waterman Elmer Evans.

For centuries, the residents of Smith Island have hauled their living from the bay, crabbing in the summer and harvesting oysters in the winter. The isolation from the rest of the world has meant that some islanders have kept the dialect from their English forebears, although the accent is dying out.

There are three villages -- Rhodes Point and Ewell on one island, Tylerton across a small stretch of water from them -- and each is pretty independent of the other. Each has its own Methodist church, and every Sunday morning the minister makes the rounds, giving the same sermon three times.

Smith Island is also something of a theocracy, with the Methodist Church performing some of the roles of a government. But that too may be changing. The Rev. Kenneth Evans, who is from New Jersey and not one of the island Evanses, says a movement is under way to set up some formal type of government, and the reason is the outsiders that have discovered the place.

Islanders for years have contributed what they could to the community fund, which is used to pay for street lights and water. But as many as 50 houses are now owned by people from off the island, and "they don't understand the system of volunteerism" that has paid the bills in the past, the Rev. Evans said.

But if life is evolving on Smith Island, Pitchcroft "would be a major change," he said.

Sanford Justice, a Delaware schoolteacher and librarian, has dreamed for years of developing the more than 80 acres he owns near Ewell. His original plans, for 200 town houses and an airstrip, were turned down. But he regrouped, admitted four longtime islanders as limited partners, and has received "theoretical" approval for his development, according to Ronald Adkins, administrator of the Somerset County department of technical and community services.

Justice won't discuss the project, but his lawyer, Smethurst, said the town houses would not commercialize the island nor would they be a jarring sight. "The whole idea here is to make this thing blend into and make it indigenous to Smith Island," Smethurst said. "It will look like a Chesapeake Bay fishing village."

But opponents say that would be impossible. The project will double the population of Ewell, they say, and amount to nothing less than a radical departure from the island way of life.

"Its approval will drive another nail into the coffin of the Chesapeake Bay," Maryland preservationist Ilia J. Fehrer wrote in a recent article denouncing the project. "Smith Island is not artificial, like other tourist spots. It can be seen as a living, working museum anchored to seafood production."

Chesapeake Bay Foundation executive director William Baker said the project design "bears no resemblance or appreciation" for its environmentally sensitive site. Its design would violate the prohibition against building within 100 feet of the marshes and tributaries of the bay, under terms of the state's critical areas legislation.

But the law will not take effect in Somerset County until the county's local plan is ready, probably next summer.

Baker and others also worry that the complex will be linked to a sewage treatment plant on the island that is frequently cited by the state for its problems. Critics also point to the lack of an evacuation plan for new residents from an island 15 miles from the mainland.

Although local officials say the project meets all local zoning standards, Baker said the state should take an interest in the development because of its precedent-setting potential.

The proposed project, Baker said, is "the opposite of what the state is trying to accomplish" in restricting bay development.

Baker wants the state Department of Planning to use its power to intervene in local decisions to halt the project or force changes in its design. The department has declined, but the foundation has met with Schaefer's Chesapeake Bay coordinator, David Carroll, and the administration is reviewing the case.

There are a number of other hurdles for Justice. The Army Corps of Engineers must approve his plan for about 80 boat slips to be built for the town houses, and the state Department of Natural Resources will decide about the extensive dredging required. Local sanitation permits must be secured. And the zoning board has retained the right to review the entire project again once architectural plans are drawn.

Both sides in the controversy say community reaction is hard to gauge. "It's a standard bell curve," said the Rev. Evans. "Some are strongly against it and some are for it, but most are in the middle."

Most feel that life on Smith Island will change whether the condos are built or not, the Rev. Evans said. The young are moving away. The bay is not as bountiful as it once was. He is trying to interest some of the residents in part-time jobs this winter assembling computer parts.

"I don't much like it {the project}, but I think it's going to happen anyway," said one island resident who was taking the ferry to Crisfield one recent afternoon. She did not want her name used because she did not "want to talk against" the watermen who are partners in the project.

"The {argument} over the condos is really the background issue," said the Rev. Evans. "The real issue is for them {island residents} to look for what they want their future to be."