Spy Review: ‘Wye Island’ 35 Years Later by David Bruce Smith

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In an earlier time–when conservation was barely regarded–there was a hamlet in Maryland called Wye Island, where the subject was often disputed–without much resolution. Few inhabitants were in favor of tampering with Time, but by the 1970s occasional developers had already appeared, edged out pieces of land, and constructed homes. Their successes were usually modest; “progress” was relatively non-threatening.

Boyd Gibbons’s “Wye Island”—now observing its 35th anniversary of publication, is the story of the builder who envisioned a much more ambitious future.

James Rouse was known as the “father” of the Columbia, Maryland community: a large enclave of residential, retail, parks, and harmonious economic diversity, with “almost 35,000 residents, over 400 businesses, [and] 90 industries…” His intent was superimpose a similar—but smaller model–on Wye, respectful to the environment, the wildlife, and the hot-tempered, multi-generational dreams of the people.

At stake–in 1973—was a one-year option on approximately 2500 virtually undisturbed acres in Queen Anne’s County, which according to the Rouse Company “[would only] be allowed for… 184 parcels of fields, woods, and shoreline, ranging in size from five acres to over twenty…” And, purchasers would not be permitted to subdivide their property—ever.

But, with three hundred years of history on land that had been touched and tilled from the Titled to the Tyrannized—Frederick Douglass had been a slave there—many were steadfastly resistant to an alternation to their lives. Already, the 1952 Chesapeake Bay Bridge had caused infinite and inconvenient traffic jams; unnecessary beach crowds, and twenty-five years of bitterness towards the “Outsiders” from Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Despite occasional disrespect from some, the easy-going Rouse—who was raised on the Shore–was confident the county and its commissioners would eventually endorse his plan of 706 units among consciously kept pristine preservation. In a letter to the public he wrote:

“It is our firm belief that a quiet, beautiful county like Queen Anne’s can grow in a manner that is consistent with its heritage…We believe that the Wye River can be protected against pollution; that the oyster beds, the crabs and the fish can flourish; that the shoreline can be preserved to provide feeding founds for ducks, geese and swan; that the farmland that marks the island’s use can be significantly maintained and that, at the same time, the island can become a place that supports a new waterfront village built to high standards of taste and quality unique in America.”

Rouse allocated a year to explain it to the citizenry of 18,422, but they remained unswayed, and the project was never begun. He surrendered the option to landowner Frank Hardy, whose 1974 auction failed to bring in the necessary proceeds. The bids were rescinded, and the acreage was sold to the state of Maryland—at a discount.

Wye Island:The True Story of an American Community’s Struggle to Preserve its way of Life
By Boyd Gibbons
227 pp. Penguin Books (paperback) $4.95

Editor’s Note: The Queen Anne’s Spy will be co-sponsoring a forum on Wye Island in the Fall of 2012 .  Details to be announced 

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