The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This Maryland town needed growth to survive. Nearly 20 years later, some say growth could destroy it.

Residents in Trappe say a plan to bring 2,500 homes to the Eastern Shore community will change their town, and harm the Chesapeake Bay.

The Lakeside at Trappe development in Trappe, Md., a huge planned community with more than 2,501 homes, could be a turning point in whether the Eastern Shore remains agricultural or begins transforming itself into suburbia. Steven Harris and his wife, Lynne Harris (not shown), who own a 165-acre farm adjacent to the project, are concerned that Lakeside's wastewater spray irrigation system could pollute nearby streams and creeks that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

TRAPPE, Md. — Nearly 20 years ago, a Northern Virginia developer came to the rescue of a tiny town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

In exchange for building 2,501 homes and perhaps 40 acres of commercial space, Rocks Engineering Co. promised to chip in for the cash-strapped town’s municipal services, including hiring a police officer, building a new town hall and contributing $250,000 to Trappe’s volunteer fire company.

The Vienna-based developer also agreed to build a new, state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant on-site — and this was key, because it was Trappe’s outdated water and sewage system that had brought the town to the edge of financial ruin.

So in April 2003, the town — burdened by a $3.5 million debt from its existing wastewater treatment plant — held a referendum to annex 924 acres for the project. The vote was 246-94 in favor.

Thus was set in motion a massive development that only now is coming to pass, and one that has triggered an intensifying and complex battle by environmentalists and neighbors to halt Lakeside at Trappe or reduce its size. Opponents say that if the project goes as planned, the huge development could more than quintuple the town’s population — currently about 1,200 — and transform Talbot County from a quiet, rural enclave into yet another sprawling Washington suburb. They also fear that its proposed system for handling wastewater could leave the town with an even bigger environmental problem.

From the archives: Boom towns appear on Maryland's Eastern Shore

The developer, through Trappe East Holding Business Trust, has applied for a state permit to discharge 540,000 gallons per day of treated wastewater through a spray irrigation system that includes showering nearby fields. The first 120 homes will be connected to the town of Trappe’s existing water treatment plant until the development’s new wastewater treatment plant and spray irrigation system are built. Though Lakeside’s lake is still only a gravel pit, the developer broke ground in July for the initial 95 dwellings.

“This is a locomotive at 300 miles per hour that’s heading down the tracks,” said Daniel Watson, a retired real estate professional who has advocated against Lakeside in articles published on the Talbot Spy, an online news site. “All this stuff is the antithesis of what is the nature of the [rural] country in Talbot County.”

Watson and other opponents, including environmentalist organizations, warn that Lakeside at Trappe’s wastewater will contribute significant amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment to nearby streams and rivers, reversing years of effort by the federal and state governments to reclaim the Chesapeake Bay. The buildup of such nutrients sets off a cascade of biological processes that produce algae blooms and dead zones in the bay.

To Lakeside’s supporters, however, the proposed development represents the onward march of progress, foreseen when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened in July 1952 with a ceremonial caravan. The 4.3-mile steel span, hailed as the fulfillment of a dream that would bind Maryland together and increase its prosperity, was “a tribute to our system of free enterprise,” said the governor at the time, Theodore R. McKeldin (R). Yet he also warned of “commercialism” that could mar the area’s beauty and expressed hope that there would be “no honky tonk growth.”

Lakeside’s backers, including Trappe’s Town Council, said the project follows smart growth principles by concentrating new homes and retail in an area that had been set aside for development since the 1970s.

From the archives: Prince George's County developer Ralph D. Rocks convicted of bribery

Instead of filling out the designated area piecemeal with different builders, Rocks Engineering, along with its engineering firm, RAUCH, has embarked on a fully planned community with parkland, bicycle paths and other amenities, said Ryan D. Showalter, an attorney representing the project. He expressed confidence that the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) will issue a final permit allowing Lakeside to proceed as planned, saying fears of polluting the bay are exaggerated.

“It’s the same level of treatment that would be applied if the water would be discharged directly into a stream or the river,” Showalter said in an interview. “So applying it to agricultural lands recharges the groundwater and puts those nutrients into a farm field where they can be used by trees or crops rather than putting them into the bay.”

None of Trappe’s Town Council members responded to an email seeking comment.

So far, the battle to halt or scale back the development has involved complex and overlapping land-use regulations, engineering data, and federal and state environmental regulations. A petition backed by at least 412 opponents has led the Talbot County Council to consider rescinding an August 2020 land-use decision that allowed the project to proceed.

“Trappe’s plan is not what we’d build today,” said Talbot County Council Vice President Pete Lesher, who was the lone vote against the project in August 2020 and sponsored the measure this year to rescind the approval. A vote could come as early as Tuesday.

“What I’m looking to do is to provide the county some leverage to negotiate with this developer,” said Lesher, who is also chief curator at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

As climate change erodes Eastern Shore, a new look at development

Opponents also hope to get the MDE to deny or modify the developer’s application for a discharge permit that would allow Lakeside to dispose of treated wastewater by spraying it on nearby fields. A lagoon is also being built to store overflow when heavy rain, frozen ground or other factors hinder the ability to do spray irrigation.

In October, more than 100 people attended a hearing held by the MDE about the permit and not a single person spoke in favor of it, the Star-Democrat of Easton reported. Opponents expressed concern that the development’s wastewater would leak into nearby Miles Creek, which flows into the Choptank River, which empties into the bay. Some also accused Trappe, like other small Maryland towns during the early 2000s housing boom, of using annexation — a process that allows towns and cities to legally incorporate surrounding land — to evade stricter and more comprehensive land-use laws at the county level.

“A very small group of people voted for this,” said Steven Harris, 62, a veterinarian who raises red Angus cattle on a 165-acre farm adjacent to the project and close to the headwaters of Miles Creek. “When there’s overflow from the lagoon or there’s leaching from the spray field, once it goes over this property line — which history says it will — it’s going to be on my property. It’s going to degrade my property and it’s going to degrade everybody’s property down below.”

Many warned that Lakeside could replicate the Preserve at Wye Mills, a smaller Talbot County housing development whose wastewater treatment and irrigation system has racked up environmental violations and skyrocketing costs for its homeowners association, according to a February 2020 MDE notice of pending enforcement action and local media reports.

“It’s a threat to everyone’s health,” said Iris Robertson, 63, who captains a yacht, Selina II, for chartered tours on the Chesapeake. Robertson said she can see firsthand the consequences of excess nitrogen and other pollutants in the bay. “You see a murky, dark olive-green water. If you stick your hand in that water, you can’t even see down six inches it is so full of algae.”

Large "dead zone" signals more problems for Chesapeake Bay

The MDE’s Oct. 28 public hearing on the Lakeside permit followed a successful court challenge by the environmental organization ShoreRivers, which argued that the public should be given more time to comment on significant changes that occurred during the permit’s drafting.

“This permit matters because it’s one of the largest proposed spray irrigation systems that this region has ever seen,” said Alan Girard, Eastern Shore director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Girard said Maryland, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the bay’s other neighboring states, has agreed to a 2025 goal for bay restoration that won’t be reached if the MDE issues permits that, in the nonprofit’s view, are scientifically dubious. Recent computer modeling by the EPA suggests that jurisdictions in the bay’s watershed need to triple their efforts to reduce excess nutrients to meet the 2025 target for improved water quality, Girard said.

“MDE really needs to step up and do its job,” Girard said. “And it has not, in our view, at this time.”

Chesapeake Bay states, along with D.C., enter new pact to restore water quality by 2025

The MDE’s final determination could also have consequences beyond the Eastern Shore, Girard said. He said developers could be encouraged to use spray irrigation wastewater systems more often to get around tighter state regulations on septic or sewage systems that discharge treated wastewater directly into bodies of water.

“If something like this gets approved here, it could be any community around the state that’s next,” Girard said.

Maryland landfills emit much greenhouse gas than state environmental agency estimated

Maryland environmental officials defended their analysis of Lakeside’s wastewater treatment plans. Such discharge permits are granted only if local governments have approved the land use and the proposed wastewater treatment system meets regulatory standards, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said.

“The permit application and review process is rooted in science, engineering, and state and federal regulations and laws,” Apperson said in an email. “The limits on pollution to waterways are established by MDE, based on criteria set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to ensure waterways remain healthy.”

Apperson said the agency is reviewing public comments about Lakeside at Trappe and expects to announce its decision on the permit in February.