DENTON — When a 3,000 home planned development failed to come to fruition in 2009, the town of Denton’s administration knew they had to re-evaluate its planning and zoning and reconfigure what they allowed to be built in its small town.
The development, West Denton Farms, began with a proposal for waterfront homes, a 120-room hotel and the promise of a brand-new Denton.
It ended with a two-year long legal battle between Caroline County and developers Rauch Engineering over zoning laws; hundreds of acres of annexed property still unused; and a 10-month moratorium on all developmental projects.
Elected officials, town planning commissioners, and staff, grouped together after the dust settled to pinpoint what went wrong with West Denton Farms and determine how they could avoid disputes like it in the future.
What the council adopted was a pattern-book: a set of rules and guidelines for developments created by national architectural firm Urban Design Associates (UDA).
The firm’s architects informed the town council that pattern-books protect local municipalities by keeping the town’s identity intact — while encouraging development.
Denton adopted the pattern-book, which it still uses today. But UDA wants to expand its reach, and has proposed another pattern-book — this one for the entire Eastern Shore.
Rob Robinson, the chairman of UDA, released the Eastern Shore Regional Pattern-Book in January 2020. He says the book will better plan for development and protect against flooding and other hazards that will arise in response to climate change.
Among a number of guidelines specific to each town and municipality, UDA’s pattern-book allows towns to first address what they want development to look like, including for historic architecture and flood-design implementations, then adopt those permanent requirements for future developers.
“We document these patterns and play them back for standards of new developments,” Robinson said. “Like if you want to extend the main street, what do the sidewalks and buildings look like? All those little things are already there, so we just call them out and keep the DNA of the place intact.”
Local architect Jay Corvan, who runs his own architecture business in Talbot County, is also pushing for the pattern-book designed by UDA. He said it will help towns build more responsibly in the future.
“It’s a way to give towns minimum standards. If you want to annex into an existing town that is incorporated, a developer has a green light to go ahead and can literally destroy the town if it wants to,” Corvan said. “There’s nothing in place for them to be able to defend themselves.”
Corvan pointed to not only West Denton Farms, but also a proposed 260-home development at Miles Point in St. Michaels.
Seventy-two acres of land for a potential Miles Point development was first annexed in the 1980s. It moved forward in 2009, but residents protested the development, which promised lavish homes priced at $500,000 or more.
By 2011, development plans had fizzled out. Officials scrambled over what to do with the land. A private entity, JD LLC, swooped in and bought the property.
Corvan said Miles Point almost pushed St. Michaels to bankruptcy. Between West Denton Farms and Miles Point, the architect sees a pattern repeating on the Eastern Shore, in which large developments that look very unlike the historic towns they are in keep getting proposed.
“In some situations a developer cares about high quality stuff, but we aren’t getting top flight developers over here,” he said. “They’re on the western shore where there is more money.”
The Eastern Shore is facing increasing pressure to build larger developments and facilities, some of which stir controversy and opposition from some residents — this year alone, there was the Nitro Circus in Queen Anne’s County, which got scrapped, as well as proposed salmon and solar farms in Dorchester County.
It’s unclear if a pattern-book is the solution to managing these larger developments. Developers like Bob Rauch, the owner of Rauch Engineering, the company overseeing builds for Lakeside at Trappe and the salmon farm, would need to come to the table.
Rauch said the real estate market is already one of the most regulated industries, and developers are constrained down to minute detail.
“The real estate development industry is one of the most heavily regulated businesses. Federal, state, county and municipal regulations must be adhered to on all projects,” he said. “Environmental regulations are developed and enforced at all government levels. Local annexation, developer agreements, PUD plans, and design guidelines regulate every imaginable detail of a planned community.”
It is unlikely developers would agree to a universal pattern-book for the entire Eastern Shore, though towns do not need their cooperation. But developers should be consulted, UDA has admitted.
Rauch maintains that many successful developments have been built on the Eastern Shore, including The Easton Club, a 340-home development he engineered in the ‘90s, without a pattern-book.
The developer also pointed to Perry’s Cabin and Tilghman on the Chesapeake as examples of other larger-scale developments that have been successful.
“How could you possibly believe that any project is completed with too little regulation?” he asked.
UDA acknowledges that developments undergo strict regulations from towns, counties and the state, even more so after The Great Recession. But larger developments are often wrapped under dynamic and complex contracts that can stretch out over years — as is the case with the mega-development Lakeside at Trappe, which has been slogging for 17 years.
Those are often too big or cumbersome for planning commission members, who are volunteers.
“Lakeside at Trappe was a long, exhaustive process,” said Richard Durban, a former planning commission member for Trappe. Durban was there when the development had its first go-around in the mid-to-late 2000s. “It was taking a long haul to do it correctly.”
Towns like Trappe want to expand tax bases and grow into the modern, 21st Century. That’s why Lakeside at Trappe was supported immensely at first when more than 900 acres for the development was first annexed in 2003.
Durban said he still supports the project for those reasons, but trying to plan for something on that scale as part of a small government was grueling.
The former town official is not familiar with the renewed proposals for the development, which was approved by town and county officials in 2020. Lakeside at Trappe is meeting resistance from environmentalists and residents concerned about wastewater discharge and town debt.
UDA wants to help towns grow but avoid those “exhaustive” processes. They plan to encourage smart growth — not stop it.
“Stopping growth has never worked,” he said. “So we develop a set of tools to be used. Zoning rarely deals with the context of the place — so (these tools) give a more precise picture of what the town is like.”
It could also help with costs and affordable housing.
The Maryland Department of the Environment approves everything from wastewater treatment to air pollution control, and developments are usually highly-regulated at the local level too, with governments determining what homes can be built and how large lots or building heights should be.
Bigger developments under these regulations can be costly for developers as well as for towns, according to the Brookings Institution — which then raises housing prices, making them less affordable. This becomes increasingly difficult and expensive when thousands of homes are proposed and more and more meetings and documents are required.
“The process of building new homes is full of uncertainty and unexpected obstacles,” the 2020 report says. “Regulatory barriers make it riskier, longer, and more expensive, which has consequences for housing affordability.”
But a guidebook for the region could simplify and patternize regulation and streamline communication between towns and counties, which have grappled over zoning laws before.
For example, Caroline County battled Rauch Engineering and the town of Denton over its annexation of the more than 800 acres of property for West Denton Farms, saying it was not within its zoning rights to do so.
Though the two-year lawsuit ended a promise from the developers to pay more than $1 million to the county, the development was delayed and eventually scrapped not long after. Rauch Engineering asked for more than $70,000 in reimbursement fees, though the town did not pay it.
Still, West Denton Farms was a wake-up call that the town’s planning and zoning, as well as its comprehensive plan, were outdated.
“We have a comprehensive plan that needs to be updated and a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Dean Danielson, a planning commission member at the time, in 2008. “There is a lot of funky zoning.”
Rauch said the West Denton Project incurred no harm on the town, only the developers.
“The project did not come to fruition, but that was based upon responsible financial decisions, it was not the result of a failure or the absence of regulations,” he said. “The only one harmed by termination of this potential project was the developer.”
The Denton Pattern Book, created in response to West Denton Farms, goes into great detail for potential developers, outlining the town’s history, architecture, environmental landscape, and issuing steps and design guidelines down to the most minute detail, including, even, for windows.
Its intention is to simplify communication between towns, counties, and developers, for expected growth.
“Like many communities among Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Denton is experiencing intense growth pressure,” the pattern book says. “This pattern book illustrates how to properly plan and design for that growth.”
Donald Mulrine, the town administrator for Denton, said the book is still used to this day. “We get compliments from other cities and towns about it.”
The Eastern Shore has unique land, architecture and communities. Instead of turning developers away, the pattern-book embraces them and molds them to its style, UDA says.
“It’s expensive to fight (developments),” said Robinson. “The idea is to avoid that kind of surprise. You know it is going to come because there is so much agricultural land and the pressure to flip that from bright corn fields into developments is irresistible for some.”
Robinson said when the developments do come, written contracts can become entangled in complicated legal language that often confuses town officials — like with West Denton Farms, planning members realized zoning laws were “funky” only after the development was dragged out for years.
Comprehensive plans, either from the town or county, can be mismanaged when parties write the Developer Rights and Responsibilities Agreements, or contracts between the town and the developers. Some comprehensive plans are so outdated as to allow for just about anything.
“Then every road becomes commercialized because that is what zoning allows,’ he said. “There has to be a playbook for what you let happen in your town.”
Corvan called out DRRAs as the biggest issue. He said the contracts are “long-winded zoning ordinances written by lawyers.”
“DRRAs are not static agreements,” he added in a text message. “Developers can change whatever they want.”
Pattern-books can also address environmental and climate change concerns in flood-prone areas and shoreline communities, like many towns on the Eastern Shore.
The Union of Concerned Scientists reported in 2017 that the entire Eastern Shore, especially St. Michaels and Cambridge, face a serious threat from flooding in the future.
“For Maryland’s Eastern Shore, sinking land and rising seas will force increasingly difficult choices in the near term. In Ocean City and 19 other communities, half or more of currently usable land would be chronically inundated by 2100,” the organization said.
Robinson said his pattern book proposals were adopted in Louisiana and Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina, because they heavily examine flooding impacts, shorelines and buffers, and climate issues, unlike any other local comprehensive plans or documents.
The Eastern Shore Regional Pattern Book would be discussed between towns and counties to determine design standards and building requirements, as well as an analysis of local architecture, before adopting guidelines for each locality.
A draft of the pattern-book proposal shows that the project could cost more than $152,000. But UDA will get funding from “multiple sources” including the Department of Natural Resources, according to Robinson.
To win approval for government funding, the first step requires UDA to bring local municipalities together, starting in the upper shore region, and get officials there to agree to a collective pattern-book proposal.
The architectural firm has not made much progress in bringing parties together, considering the pandemic has stopped most meetings. But UDA plans to move forward in 2021.
Corvan explained that towns will eventually come to see the usefulness of the pattern-book proposal.
“The whole idea of this project is to explain to anybody who wants to build — whether you’re a developer of a single house or a million houses — that this is what we expect of you when you come to us,” he said.
The Department of Natural Resources has expressed interest in funding the proposal. Sasha Land, a coastal planner for the Chesapeake region at DNR, reviewed the proposal and the agency was interested “in keeping this dialogue going.”
“Overall, it was found that this was a very forward-thinking approach to plan for climate impacts across the region,” she wrote in a response letter. “We strongly encourage you to cultivate support across the Eastern Shore counties that includes both public and private entities.”
The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy declined to comment on the story, saying previous experts with pattern-books no longer work at the land-use organization. The ESLC would be instrumental in backing or opposing the proposal if it comes under consideration.
While UDA’s pattern-book is unique to the Eastern Shore, proposals like it are nothing new. The Brookings Institution said all parties would benefit from some form of simplicity when it comes to planning, zoning and development.
“Making the development process simpler, shorter, and more transparent,” its 2020 report said, “would be a good start.”