They crammed into the fire station, a crowd of about 300 who came to learn details about a controversial Chesapeake Beach land swap and ended up debating sharply different visions for the future.
The public hearing Thursday, which the mayor moved from the town hall to the nearby North Beach fire station to accommodate the large crowd, was originally planned to last 30 minutes but instead stretched beyond two hours.
Supporters of the proposed land swap--mostly business people and parents and children involved in youth sports--say the project would create needed year-round recreational facilities for children and provide an economic boost to Chesapeake Beach's continuing rise from a run-down past to an upscale future.
"I can't see anything wrong with this land swap," said Michael L. Emery, president of the Beach Buccaneers, the largest of several athletic organizations that use the field targeted for the land swap. The swap would include $500,000 in improvements to the playing areas, including lighting, an electronic scoreboard, more parking and new restroom facilities.
"Don't cheat the kids," said Emery, who was wearing his orange Beach Buccaneers T-shirt and orange and black baseball cap. "Kids are the most important thing in the whole town!"
Dana Jones, executive director of the Tri-County Community Development Agency, said the land swap preserves options for the town by creating space that can be developed later as needed. "This is about the economic development future of the town," said Jones, whose agency is building affordable housing near the town's recreation complex.
Opponents--mostly slow-growth advocates and condominium owners who live across the road from the recreational complex--said the land swap would exacerbate the town's growing pains, damage its natural beauty and benefit the business owners, including Mayor Gerald Donovan, instead of residents.
"I'm all for kids but this plan is much too elaborate," said Dorothy Morley, a 16-year resident of the town. "We don't need people throughout the county coming into Chesapeake Beach and causing congestion. . . . Continued growth in Chesapeake Beach has not benefited the residents. I still believe it benefits the businesses."
Donovan, who owns two restaurants and a marina and is planning to build a 60-room hotel across from the recreational complex, has a financial stake in further development of the recreational complex, critics say.
"Think, guys! Why is this happening now? You have to consider the profit motive and the proposed hotel going up," said Bernice Conklin-Powers, as a handful of audience members started chanting, "No Hotel! No Hotel!"
At issue is Kellam ballfield, a piece of county land in the heart of the town's recreational complex off Route 261. The ballfield sits next to the town's popular $2.3 million water park.
Mayor Donovan wants Calvert County to give ownership of Kellam field to the town. In exchange, the mayor is offering the county a property of comparable size just west of the Kellam field. To sweeten the deal, Donovan says the town will pour $500,000 in improvements into the land it gives the county, including a new ballfield, with lights, bleachers, a scoreboard, a tot lot, a playground, new bathrooms and new pavilions.
The plan would leave the town in control of about 60,000 square feet of undeveloped space next to the existing water park.
Donovan said the land would be set aside for "future improvements," and that he and the Town Council have not decided what they would be.
But opponents are convinced the mayor wants to create a second water park or similar attraction. They point to a 1998 drawing of an expanded water park given to the town by Paddock Pools, the Rockville company that designed the existing park.
At Thursday night's hearing, Donovan mocked characterizations that he is determined to expand the water park. "People talk about Mayor Donovan's burning desire to expand the water park," he said into a hand-held microphone as he paced back and forth before the crowd. "Have I thought about it? Damn right. I've thought about a lot of things. But I don't know what the 60,000 square feet will become."
Donovan said opponents were fearful and selfish. "You put your selfish feelings ahead of this town and go down to Prince Frederick and say, 'We're afraid of this monster water park'--that would be a selfish sin," Donovan said.
The county commissioners, who intend to hold their own hearing on the plan, must approve any land swap.
Conklin-Powers called the water park "offensive" and said more development would destroy the town's natural beauty. "Progress does not mean paving every inch of Chesapeake Beach," Conklin-Powers said, adding that she moved to the town seven years ago to "get a respite from buildings, concrete and commercialism."
"For some of us, recreation is walking back there and watching the otters play," she said. "We don't need a lot of glitzy distractions to entertain us."
Her comments were echoed by two teenagers who rose to speak.
"Not everyone is a Beach Buccaneer," said Jimmy Humphries, 15. "They don't need to make it big and fancy. It's fine the way it is now."
His friend, Virginia Vogt, 14, quoted lyrics from songwriter Joni Mitchell to the crowd. "Don't pave paradise and put up a parking lot," she said.
Others said they hadn't made up their minds. Tom Vonk said he wanted more details. "It's hard to argue against a ballfield," Vonk said. "But what I ask is that we know what it is we're making a decision about. What are the traffic impacts? What is the data?"