The brick traffic-calming pattern on Betterton's Main Street seems out of place. If this Kent County town were any calmer during the week, the only thing moving would be tree branches waving in the bayside breezes.
Betterton is 12 miles north of Chestertown, via two-lane, winding country roads lined with fields of corn and soybeans. It's not one of those communities you drive through by accident. In fact, Main Street ends where the Sassafras River meets the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay.
It's a "locked community," said Margo M. Turner, the town clerk. To the east is marshland, to the west is a nature preserve, and to the north is the bay. As far as expansion, "the only place to go is southerly," she said.
The nothing-much-is-happening-here atmosphere is deceptive, though. As this town of 370 full-time residents prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday next year, activity surrounding an 1886 fishing shanty and several proposed housing developments symbolize Betterton's efforts to preserve its past and define its future. Both concepts are relatively new to the community.
The town was once a fishing village. It was known as Fish Hall in 1715, then called Crews Landing in 1726 when Edward Crew bought 60 acres of waterfront property for 3,000 pounds of tobacco. In 1866, his heirs received $78.43 when the county reclaimed the property for a public landing.
Betterton's history mirrors that of numerous other bayside towns, soaring as a vibrant resort destination via steamboat in the early 1900s and slipping into tranquility in the late 1950s as travel to ocean beaches became more fashionable.
The house where Donald L. Owens lives was bought by his father in 1939 for $910 and served as a general store until the late 1950s. When he was young, Owens, now 78, would hoist huge bags of flour and sugar on his shoulders and deliver them by bicycle to one of the many grand Victorian hotels then in town.
"Up until the war [World War II], 90 percent of Betterton's residents were born here and married their neighbors," said Owens, adding with a laugh, "You had to be careful when you talked about somebody."
Owens's daughter Donna Jean, 52, spent her youth enjoying hotel-sponsored teen dances and earning money by calling bingo games or serving as a waitress when she was so young that others had to handle the beer orders. "The worst crime here was teenage boys putting live crabs on a policeman's car seat," she said. He sat, crabs bit.
Ray Sparks and his wife, Sandi, run the one B&B in town. "You can start a project on the front porch, leave your tools until the next morning and they'll still be there," he said.
Of the town's 272 houses, about 55 percent are occupied by part-time residents. Matt Starrett, who works in Hagerstown, bought his small Betterton cottage 10 years ago with an eye to retiring in the town. His weekends over the past decade have been spent gradually updating and winterizing his house. "I didn't even own a hammer then, but I've fixed it all up myself," he said.
"There isn't much work here and what jobs there are don't pay much," Turner said. The hotels are gone. There is one restaurant near the public beach, but the last mom-and-pop store closed in 1985 because business wasn't sufficient to keep it going year round. The nearest hospital is in Chestertown and it's several miles to a full-size grocery.
And yet the developers are coming to the acreage south of the bayside town. "How far from the water is still considered a water community?" Turner said. "It's an immeasurable commodity."
Anita S. Williams, an interior designer in Washington for 25 years, was born in Betterton and recently returned to live in the house her grandfather built in 1897. "Growing up here, we didn't know the value of land near water because everyone had it," she said.
Developers considering the area face minimal restrictions on building or remodeling. There has been resistance to historic preservation regulations, even though the core of the town is designated as the Betterton Historic District and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Betterton Community Development Corp., a five-year-old nonprofit group, is the closest thing the community has to an historical society.
"Many here would rather risk losing their community than their freedom," Turner said. The perception, she said, is that historical societies are "notorious" for dictating what you can and cannot do with your own property.
However, Williams, who heads the Betterton Board of Zoning Appeals, said because of her design background, "I like architectural controls."
One developer is planning 282 houses near Betterton's fire station. Another has proposed a 126-acre fly-in community on what is now a nearby cornfield just outside of town, once zoned for a golf course. As proposed, each of those homes would have its own hangar, half with direct connections to the runway.
Opposition to the fly-in community is quite strong. When Betterton's council voted in 2004 to change existing zoning regulations to allow for the airplane-oriented development, the next two council members up for re-election lost their seats. That zoning change is being reconsidered now.
The town, which has an aging sewer system and minimal services nearby, is "in the early stages of sorting out how it will all fit in," said Joanne Jewitt Hollidge, who chairs the Betterton Planning and Zoning Commission. "When all is said and done, we want to be proud of what has been done," she said.
Meanwhile, the Betterton Community Development Corp. is focusing on the remnants of the town's history, raising funds through house tours and the sale of local art. Combined with donations and grants, early proceeds went toward rebuilding the community's landmark waterside footbridge. Money is now being set aside to restore the 120-year-old fishing shanty, nicknamed "the ark," for educational purposes. It was hand hewn locally from cedar and oak planking and designed as a houseboat for fishing crews.
The group's next dream is to acquire one of the older buildings for a museum to house the collections of Betterton memorabilia now squirreled away in attics around town.
Betterton Day is today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the town park; activities include arts and crafts, a parade, a baby contest and other old-fashioned events. For information, call 410-348-9955.