- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

EASTON, Md. |

A wealthy resident of Spain recently purchased a second home in the famously upscale Hamptons and felt he was getting a bargain compared to the price for prime real estate in Europe. About the same time, a celebrity couple from the Hamptons set their sights on a $3.3 million property on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in booming Talbot County, where they said taxes are much lower. They hoped one day to make it their retirement home.

It takes just five hours to drive here from New York - the same amount of time it takes New Yorkers to get to eastern Long Island on a busy Friday. No wonder Talbot County’s professional boosters refer to the surge of interest as a “Hamptonization,” an expression many locals dispute on grounds that their area is unique and does not in any way compare to southern Long Island’s flashy jet-set enclaves. Some, however, will concede to a possible “Washingtonization” of their territory (minus traffic trauma and road rage) because of its growing number of cultural amenities, with Easton as the hub.

The charming old Victorian and Federal houses in the towns of Easton, St. Michaels and Oxford sell well - at prices in the six figures - as does anything on the water, usually large acreage costing between $3 million and $6 million, say real estate agents Deborah and Tom Crouch. (Inland, sales are down like everywhere else.) As the county seat, Easton is the economic heart; St. Michaels, more tourist-minded, is at the same time more reclusive; and Oxford is an even quieter retreat.

Talbot County has roots going back hundreds of years, and noted families long have bought second homes here, so it isn’t as though the place is just being discovered. A new breed of settler is arriving, however, an influx brought on in part by telecommuting - which can free people from driving at rush times - and by young families’ search for stable, child-friendly neighborhoods, says Alexander Bond, Easton’s laid-back director of development. Six years in the job, this native son and father, 39, works hard by day and races sailboats in the evening. There are, he boasts, “600 miles of shoreline” - mainly creeks and rivers.

The Talbot County Office of Tourism just released its first Shopping Guide for a county it dubs “Rich, Relaxing, Romantic.” Rich in every way. “Businesses are here because local people patronize them in some way,” Mr. Bond says. Families have been known to try to get their children into Easton’s coveted and expensive Country School for kindergarten through eighth grade and move to the area when they know their child is accepted.

A key factor, Mr. Bond says, has been that the town “has reinvested in its commercial core for a long time, with brick sidewalks and such, doing 30 years ago what many other communities are just getting around to doing.” An old theater called the Avalon was reclaimed as a nonprofit to provide a venue for performing-arts entertainment of every stripe, including free movies out of doors in summer.

As an example of what he calls a third phase under way, he cites the international corporate mogul who has bought a half block in the prized downtown for rehabilitation under strict guidelines with the intention of making Easton his future headquarters. “His wife and kids like it here,” Mr. Bond says.

Easton’s airport, the second-busiest in Maryland, recently put up an air-control tower and enlarged a runway in response to demands for more capacity from private users, including owners of a lighter-weight, more efficient class of jet. The town is even “courting” a large college to open a branch campus, according to Mr. Bond.

“A cabinetmaker just moved here from Frederick [Md.] for more lifestyle choices,” says Fiona Newell Weeks, co-partner with Don Wooters in the year-old Dwelling & Design on Goldsborough Street. D&D does custom interior design for East Coast clients. The store displays items for sale ranging range from $25 to more than $8,000.

Fiona and Joe Weeks, a former software executive, moved their family to the Eastern Shore from the Washington suburbs more than two years ago. “I flamed out,” Mr. Weeks says. He adopted a slower pace and became a real estate agent “I’m kind of used to the five-minute commute,” he deadpans.

Baby boomers are just starting to come, Mr. Weeks says, defining them as “those just reaching their 60-year plateau, asking what to do with themselves and thinking about where to retire.”

Andrew Evans, a nationally known chef, opened the Inn at Easton to great acclaim a decade ago and helped put the town on the culinary map. It since has closed, but, sensing a growing demand for more varied ethnic food among increasingly cosmopolitan-minded residents, Mr. Evans opened a smaller Asian-flavored restaurant, Thai Ki. “Easton is a great small town, but it offers lots of action,” he says.

A quote from Thomas Jefferson - “Taste cannot be controlled by law” - is on the back of developer Lehr Jackson’s business card for Easton Market Square, a tasteful and ambitious mix of stores and cafes due to open under his direction in a spacious, somewhat classical-looking complex that will replace an area of parking lots.

Describing himself as a “frustrated architect and failed engineer,” Mr. Jackson retired two years ago after helping create some of the country’s most notable public settings and facilities. Think Harborplace in Baltimore, Washington’s Union Station and Boston’s Faneuil Hall. He is engaged full time in the current project, which he says is intended “to keep the big boxes out.”

Art galleries, antique shops and at least one funky coffee shop abound, and the four-year-old Plein Air Competition & Arts Festival, taking place this week, is a draw for artists around the country.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. An element of reserve persists. In June, Easton police ticketed an 18-year-old man for going shirtless in public.

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