A proposed development in Dorchester County, MD, is looming as a critical test of whether Maryland is serious about maintaining agriculture as a viable industry and protecting the environment.

The Blackwater Resort Communities Project has already attracted considerable attention throughout the heavily agricultural Eastern Shore and beyond. Extraordinary in scope, the resort would occupy more than 1,000 acres of existing farmland south of the city of Cambridge.

Plans call for 3,200 single-family and multifamily homes, a 100-room hotel and conference center, a retail center and a golf course, all on the Little Blackwater River, which drains into Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The developer has requested a growth allocation or special permission to build in protected areas—the largest growth allocation, in fact, in Maryland’s history. The 313 acres in question fall into a protective zone along the Little Blackwater designated as a Critical Area. If granted, the growth allocation would allow construction of the golf course and 150 homes on land already set aside for resource conservation.

In annexing this farmland for intensive development, the city has ignored widespread community support for slowing the loss of farmland—all for the purpose of building more than twice the number of homes needed in Dorchester County through 2020, according to the Maryland Association of Counties. Cambridge has never updated its comprehensive plan to include the Blackwater project, nor is the site a designated growth area in the city’s current comprehensive plan.

In recent months, Chesapeake Bay Foundation staff have testified at Dorchester County hearings about concerns regarding the development, which we consider one of the most deliberate assaults yet mounted on sensitive lands.

We object to the proposal because it so egregiously violates long-standing principles of smart growth, ignores the state’s purported commitment to farm preservation and would cause serious environmental damage. Residents throughout the region join us in this position.

The city of Cambridge has not yet done a watershed study to determine what the environmental effects of the project will be. Given the size of the development, however, pollution from stormwater would be difficult to manage, especially because the soils drain poorly and the water table is high. Engineers estimate that the volume of runoff containing fertilizers, pesticides and other contaminants would be considerable, all of it flowing into Little Blackwater River, then into Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and, ultimately, the Bay.

Despite these concerns, the city of Cambridge gave preliminary approval to a Design Master Plan for the development in August 2005, contingent on approval from the State Critical Area Commission and the city.

In December, the Dorchester County Board of Commissioners voted to approve the 313 acres of growth allocation in the Critical Area. This decision then went to the State Critical Area Commission for review. The city of Cambridge is scheduled to vote on the plan again in February.

If, as expected, county and city approvals of the growth allocation and the design plan are given, opponents’ options are limited. Should the county and city move forward, the only remaining hope is for Maryland’s Critical Area Commission to halt the project.

We urge the commission and Gov. Robert Ehrlich to express their opposition immediately. Intervention by Governor Ehrlich may be one of the few options left to stop construction.

And it should be stopped. The Blackwater case is a blatant affront to citizens throughout the region. It rejects smart growth policies, threatens irreversible harm to its surroundings, and destroys a farming legacy that has existed for generations.

If the state, county and city do not move to prevent the development, the CBF will use every option possible to do so, including litigation.

The protection of farmland is a primary goal in the fight to improve water quality, and must remain so. We stand with farmers and adjacent landowners, who will be significantly harmed, in questioning the rush to build without any scientific study of the project’s impact.

There are better options for Dorchester County to grow than to permit one massive development on prime farmland—and this is a sentiment that many local landowners share.

“There’s got to be development, but that ground should never be built upon,” said Jim Saathoff, co-owner of Good Luck Farms, which is downriver from the project. “The area has many natural resources, endangered species and hunting opportunities that bring people to this county and give us a way to make a living. This project is going to destroy it. What they do upriver will come downriver and affect our farm.”