Developer stirs up placid village of Bath

Town isn't used to change, and some residents are fighting it

Staff WriterOctober 11, 2009 

  • It could be that John Baldwin and his backers are fighting a curse that has stunted the town for more than 250 years.

    In the mid-1700s, the famous English evangelical minister George Whitefield visited Bath several times.

    Whitefield slept in a coffin that he kept in his wagon, and he believed that dancing was a powerful tool of the devil.

    Legend has it that townsfolk made it clear the odd minister wasn't welcome and Whitefield left in a huff, stopping only to shake the dust of Bath off his shoes and to place a curse on the town.

    By some accounts it was a general, all-purpose curse, but others say that he doomed Bath to forever remain a small village.

Even one of history's mostnotorious pirates was more welcome here than formerRaleigh developer John Baldwin.

Of course, Blackbeard didn't build his house a tad higher than the town's rules allowed or propose several new subdivisions, let alone try to build a convenience store and retail center in the historic district of one of North Carolina's most tranquil spots.

Baldwin is a sunny extrovert who keeps an offshore racing-style speedboat tied to the dock in front of his Savannah-style home built on two waterfront lots. He was perhaps best known in the Triangle for building more than 20 homes costing at least $1 million in Wakefield Plantation and for the stunt of offering a new Ferrari and $500,000 in cash to anyone willing to buy a $3 million model home there.

In the past four years, though, he has refocused on Bath, proposing changes that add up to perhaps the biggest makeover in centuries for the state's oldest town. This sleepy village, where the population of about 270 has changed little since the 1960s, has just one full-time town employee and no police department.

Baldwin's work has been slowed by locals unmoved by his zeal for modernizing the town and angered that he has run afoul of local rules during construction of his house and state environmental regulations for improperly clearing waterfront vegetation.

"Too much, too big, toomany," said Beth Turnage Biesel, one of a group of residents that has hired a lawyer to fight Bald win's most recent proposal, improvements to the tiny marina owned by him and his wife, Cindy. "The town can't even take care of regulating all the stuff he's been trying to do, and the intrusions and violations are just taking up all the town's time, because he's always asking for something else."

Baldwin says he has changed his style and the feuding will die down now. That's in one breath. In the next, he says he'll sue the town if they try to stop his plan for the commercial building in the town's historic district.

A treasured town

Both sides in the Baldwin debate agree on one thing about the town: It's special.

Bath was founded in 1705 on a peninsula sheltered in a bay off the Pamlico River, about 120 miles east of what now is Raleigh. It was the site of the state's first public library and is still home to the oldest surviving church. The state legislature met in Bath three times in the mid-1700s, and it was once home to a shipyard and, for a brief time, that rowdy, self-hyping pirate. Its fortunes, though, began to decline not long after the Revolutionary War.

Since then, it has mainly been a quiet collection of houses. Boating, a bit of fishing and maybe an ice-cream cone from the Quarterdeck qualify as excitement.

It is not the kind of place where many folks made a habit of attending meetings of the town commissioners or planning board. But since Baldwin began proposing things about three years ago, his matters have taken up the majority of the town boards' time, perhaps as much as 80percent of it, said Jackie Collins, a member of the town historic district committee, which also serves as the planning board.

"Before that, meetings would take maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and we might go two or three months between meetings," Collins said.

One thing the town commissioners did early on was to place a six-month moratorium on development, something Baldwin said was aimed squarely at him.

"I never bought property that wasn't for sale, and I never proposed anything that wasn't in the guidelines," he said.

The moratorium and other delays have cost him millions, he said, in part because he was slowed just enough to miss the waterfront land boom that peaked in 2006 and ended the next year.

Still, Cindy and John Bald win decided to move their family to Bath, partly because they felt it was better to raise their children in such a classic small-town atmosphere. Essentially, they were looking for the same thing their opponents want.

"Moving here was like moving into 1970," he said.

More than 20 neighbors came, one at a time, to drop off cakes and whole dinners and welcome them, he said. "In Raleigh, we moved about 10 times, and I think someone brought us brownies once."

Bath in court

From the beginning, though, Baldwin's plans for three subdivisions, a prominent commercial tract in the historic district and other property have dominated official town business and town gossip and bitterly divided folks who live in and around Bath.

There have been citizens groups formed on both sides, petitions, legal action and threats of more. Baldwin was told by the town to reduce the height of his house after he built it a couple of feet too high.

Exactly how tall it was is still a matter of debate, but Baldwin said he trimmed 10 inches from the roof at his own expense, even though other houses nearby are taller and no one complained about them.

The latest squabble, headed to court soon, drew an overflow crowd equivalent to more than a third of the town's population to a hearing in August. Technically, the disagreement was about the proposed improvements to the Quarterdeck marina, which is little more than a store the size of a living room, with three short piers and a boat ramp.

Mainly, though, it was a continuation of the yearslong referendum on Baldwin.

Baldwin says town leaders are planning to tailor zoning changes to block his plans and they have forced him to do things such as build roads with four times as much asphalt as required, even though he already proposed to double the required amount.

Bath's part-time town clerk, Bubs Carson, didn't return calls seeking information about the town's dealings with Baldwin, and Mayor Jimmy Latham declined to talk.

"I don't want to expose the town to litigation any more than it already is," Latham said.

Many who oppose Baldwin want Bath to stay much like it is. "If we wanted Atlantic Beach, or Virginia Beach or Myrtle Beach, we'd have gone there," Biesel said.

Others think more homes and a bit more commerce would be healthy improvements.

"We want to protect the water quality and the historical nature of the town, but Bath shouldn't be pickled in formaldehyde," said Jack Chesson, an orthodontist who lives just outside town. "Some of us would like to have a nice restaurant, a couple more shops and not squander the chance for the town to have just a little more."

Chesson is part of Bath Area Concerned Citizens, which formed to back more economic development and supports Baldwin.

Is the town dying?

There's plenty of aggravation on both sides, and it was inflamed after one of Bald win's relatives, Charles Smith, wrote and distributed letters to Bath residents that called for the firing of the town's part-time administrator and its attorney and threatened to sue the town.

Baldwin's style when he began working in Bath didn't help either, several of his supporters said.

"John kind of blustered into town, like, 'I'm the big builder from Raleigh,' and then he violated a few [regulations], so he was his worst enemy in a way," said Jack Piland, a retired Abbott Laboratories executive who is on the planning board and lives just outside town in Bath's planning jurisdiction.

"The truth is, though, that some people here never would have given them a chance anyway," he said.

Piland fears that the town is slowly dying now that the real estate boom has ended and young people are continuing to leave the area to look for work.

If the population dips, he said, the town could lose the handful of businesses remaining. There are already too few to keep the tax base healthy, and a few losses could make the town unsustainable.

Recently, Piland said, someone he knows joked about printing a new T-shirt to sell around town. It would say "Bath -- The town that took 300 years to die."

The Quarterdeck marina

Baldwin's opponents say that he simply can't be trusted and that he routinely ignores laws and regulations. They point to several state environmental violations Baldwin has been cited for at one of his developments, including one for cutting vegetation in a waterfront buffer that already had been restored once after improper clearing.

That distrust spurred the big turnout on the relatively modest changes the Baldwins wanted for the Quarterdeck.

They wanted to enlarge the piers, widen a walkway and put seating on the roof of the building. Some opponents say that the longer piers were a sneaky first step toward putting in permanent rental slips. Or some say that the whole thing was geared toward making the town a more attractive place for potential buyers of his lots. Some worried that increased boat traffic would worsen the water quality in the creek.

Baldwin said in an interview that the piers are badly needed. Boat traffic getsheavy at the end of warm days, and there isn't enough space for the craft to tie up while the owners are getting ready to pull them out of the water at the ramp.

That means boats putter around in circles until space opens on the piers, which is surely worse for the water quality than having the boats tied up, he said.

The hearing went past midnight, so the town commissioners postponed a vote and then reached a compromise with him, agreeing to allow the seating on the roof, improvements to a bulkhead and the walkways.

Other arguments haven't yet been settled.

Opportunities lost

It was in 2006 that the town commissioners put a six-month moratorium on new development.

Meanwhile, the market for such land cratered. Baldwin was able to sell most of the lots in one subdivision, though only a couple of houses have been built. But the delays by the town, he said, may have cost him millions.

Also, two other subdivisions he was working on have been held up much longer than he had expected

He hasn't sold a lot in more than a year and a half. Coastal real estate boomed, then crashed. Now he's left with dozens of lots that won't sell for years.

Still, Baldwin said he isready to put all the disagreements behind him.

"We're flat broke, and we'd be extremely wealthy if not for this," he said. "But it's over, as far as I'm concerned."

Or maybe not.

Cindy Baldwin has decided to run for town commissioner -- in part, she said, because it has become clear that small business owners need to be represented better on the board.

Then there's the little matter of that commercial tract in one of the most visible parts of the town's historic district.

The land is zoned for commercial use, and Baldwin has told the town that he wants to erect a building with space for a restaurant, convenience store with gas pumps and motel rooms as well as a few other businesses, an arrangement that could more than double the amount of commerce in the town.

Asked about a town plan to change the zoning in a way that could block his plans, Bald win's sunny smile turned a little rueful. "Well," he said, "if they do, that would be the final thing, and I have told the mayor and several council members I'd sue."

News researcher DavidRaynor contributed tothis report.

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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