This shady, sun-dappled lane wanders between corn fields to an unknown future for farm towns across the Chesapeake region. The road is in Hebron, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a farming community of about 800 people that is one of many facing radical change in the shape of sprawling development.
Here, in this corn field, a developer is proposing to build two Wal Mart-sized big box stores, 1,500 homes, two hotels, a conference center, offices, and acres of parking lots. Waller Landing would make Hebron’s population grow more than five fold. Local opponents in February won a David vs. Goliath victory in a court challenge of the town's approval of zoning for the massive project. But the celebration was short-lived. The Hebron Town Commission appealed the decision and continues to press ahead with the development. Goliath refuses to stay down.
This is Fran Mumford, one of the local homeowners fighting the project. She said it makes no sense that the development would destroy about 400 acres of farmland near Route 50 on the fringe of town -- and ignore vacant industrial and residential properties in the town center that needs to be redeveloped. “Right now, you see corn fields, you hear the birds singing, and it's rural land," Mumford said. "And so they are going to totally rape this land and make it something that is not conducive or similar to what you see here in Hebron.”
What she's talking about is a close-knit community that still has agricultural character, family-owned businesses, and local traditions, like the annual Hebron Volunteer Fire Department Carnival. Some critics of the Waller Landing project worry that local institutions like the Hebron Family Restaurant, a diner where everyone gathers, could be put out of business if chain restaurants open up in the huge retail complex by the highway.
Pollution into nearby Rewastico Creek (pictured here) is also a major concern. Alan Girard, Heart of the Chesapeake Project Manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the town's sewage treatment plant would be overwhelmed by 1,500 additional homes, and that runoff from all the blacktop would also pollute the creek, which leads to the Nanticoke River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. "When you look at communities throughout the Bay watershed, the ones that are proposing growth that is way out of scale and character with the existing town, and leave major questions unanswered about how wastewater is going to be treated –- this is where the rubber meets the road for Bay pollution, and where we need to focus our effort,” Girard said.
This Ralph Harcum, a sixth generation farmer who lives beside Rewastico Creek and worries about pollution from the development. He said he can't believe that the Hebron Town Commission appears to be plowing ahead with the project, despite the February court decision that threw out the town's approval of zoning for the development. "Hard headed! Won't listen to anybody. That was my reaction," Harcum said.
On April 26, the Town Commission re-did its zoning hearing. More than a dozen people spoke against the project, and none testified in favor of it. The Maryland Department of Planning and Wicomico County have written letters criticizing the town of Hebron's lack of good planning. The Town Commission president and immediate past president both declined to be interviewed, saying their attorney advised them not to talk during the town's appeal of the court decision. The developer, James Rostocki, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
So why is the town determined to move ahead with a project that so sharply cuts against the grain of the community's character and public good? A consultant hired by the developer suggested that the project would bring the Hebron town government about $1.5 million a year in taxes. That could certainly be playing a role here.
But what about the broader costs to the town's quality of life, from all the additional traffic? What about the costs to the environment, from the sewage and runoff? And, most of all, what about the costs to the community's soul, when chain stores and big box retailers kill off the family-owned businesses that everyone considers the heart of Hebron? No check from a developer can pay to replace these.