- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — More than two years after an enormous residential-resort development was proposed near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the debate continues about whether it will revive the area or simply ruin a stretch of farmland.

The Blackwater Resort Communities — with its 2,700 homes, hotel and golf course — could increase the city’s population by 50 percent.

Some think it’s a good idea for Dorchester County because it has the state’s third-highest unemployment and for the city, which has a population smaller than it did in 1950. Environmentalists and others fear the subdivision could harm the refuge and lead to suburban-style sprawl.

The debate has even spread from the City Council chambers to the Statehouse and could take years to be settled.

First, the city annexed the property and designated it an area for growth, though the quiet pastures along the Little Blackwater River are a few miles from the downtown. Some neighboring farmers complained about the proposed development — some because they would lose the ability to lease land to hunters, while others feared their crops would flood from storm runoff from the subdivision.

Environmental groups said it would cause irreparable damage to the refuge downstream. News reports about the subdivision sparked a bill in the state Senate to prevent it, though the legislation was defeated with opposition from Dorchester lawmakers who feared a loss of local autonomy.

The developer, Duane Zentgraf, scaled back his plans for critics. Homes were taken out of the section deemed an environmentally critical area because of its proximity to the river. Total home sites were reduced from 3,200 to 2,700. The golf course was designed to prevent fertilizer runoff.

Local supporters say Mr. Zentgraf has jumped through so many hoops that it’s time to end the debate and break ground.

At a recent meeting of the city’s planning and zoning commission, the 14th hearing for the project, Commissioner Jerry Burroughs was part of the majority on a 5-2 vote to send the subdivision issue to the City Council for final approval.

Mr. Zentgraf deferred questions to a lawyer and a team of consultants who answered the commissioners’ questions on everything from the design of earthen berms to water-quality monitoring.

An economist hired by Mr. Zentgraf told commissioners the billion-dollar project would create 3,400 jobs and bring $1.5 million a year to the county. Local authorities mostly support the development, which has never failed a vote in city or county proceedings, but the opposition isn’t going away. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental activist group, has filed lawsuits against the city and county to try to block the subdivision.

The state could still step in, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has said the development is a local decision. His Democratic challenger in the upcoming election, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, sent Mr. Ehrlich a letter asking him to intervene to push the development closer to Cambridge’s downtown and away from Blackwater.

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