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Lifestyle B'More Green

Smith Islanders debate buyout offered by state

Superstorm Sandy barely laid a glove on Smith Island last fall, to hear residents tell it. Though storm-driven flooding damaged hundreds of homes in Crisfield and the rest of Somerset County, only a couple islanders got any water in their homes from the surging Chesapeake Bay.

Yet with the island slowly shrinking and sinking into the bay, the state is considering using $2 million of the federal storm recovery aid it's received so far to buy out islanders who want to sell their homes and move to the mainland — "out of harm's way," as one official put it.

The hardy, proud islanders, some of whose roots here go back more than 400 years, aren't exactly rushing to take the offer. Instead, some have banded together to denounce the buyout, saying that despite the challenges and risks of living 13 miles out in the bay, they're not about to give up on the low-lying archipelago of sand and marsh. To them, the state's offer to move them from the only home they've ever known is like a slap in the face.

"It could help my pocketbook, but it's not going to help my peace of mind," said John Tyler, a waterman who's lived here all his 57 years. "I love Smith Island. You can't put a dollar value on what it means to me."

Tyler and others say they're concerned about losing so many people that it no longer becomes tenable to live there. Some organized a campaign involving a website, social media and letter-writing.

"The buyout is what's going to kill us,'' said John Del Duco, 53, a transplanted New Yorker who has lived full time on the island for more than two years. He and his wife manage Ruke's, an eatery near the center of Ewell, one of the island's three villages.

State and county officials say they didn't mean to send a message that that they want to depopulate the island, only to offer a hand to some who may want to move closer to doctors, drugstores and other services the island has lacked for years.

"No one at the state level is saying we're abandoning Smith Islanders or Smith Island," said John R. Griffin, state natural resources secretary. He blamed the islanders' unhappiness on a miscommunication.

The state has received $8.6 million in federal funds to help repair the 927 homes in Somerset that were damaged by Sandy, said Cindy Stone, with the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Federal guidelines specified that the money shouldn't be spent fixing up places likely to flood again, Stone said.

Only nine homes on Smith Island suffered direct damage, Stone said. But with studies showing that Smith and other bay islands are losing ground to erosion, storms and sea level rise, she said, state officials thought buying homes made more sense than just fixing them up.

"A lot of people out there, their families have left," she said, and some are elderly. "Even if four families moved off, it got four future families out of future harm's way."

First settled in 1657, the island's three towns — Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point — lacked electricity until after World War II. The dominant institution has been the Methodist church, with a single pastor, Rick Edmund, shuttling among the communities.

"It takes commitment for somebody to want to live over here," Edmund said. The isolation can be daunting, especially when a storm threatens.

Sea level is rising in that part of the bay by about an inch per decade, according to government measurements. The ground also is slowly sinking, and the two forces combined to raise the water a little more than a foot in the past century.

Scientists say that global climate change will accelerate the process, with projections of sea level increase ranging from two to four feet or even more by the end of the century. All but a few spots on the island could be under water if sea level rises four feet or more.

"By 2100 they've got to have some alternative," said Court Stevenson, a University of Maryland ecologist who's studied coastal erosion and the bay's vanished and vanishing islands.

Jerry Smith's two-story frame home in Rhodes Point was perhaps the worst hit by Sandy. The bay surged over the low spit of land, reaching knee-deep on the road in front of the house where he grew up, the 47-year-old crabber said. Water was a couple inches deep on the first floor, he said, and 86-mile-per-hour winds tore two big holes in the roof.

Smith, his wife and 4-year-old son are living elsewhere on the island and he's repairing his crab shed.

Smith said their damaged home was assessed at about $47,000, so he doubts the state could offer enough money to allow him to live on the mainland.

"I've done this since I was 17 years old," he said. "I don't know anything else."

While some islanders scoff at scientists' projections that sea level will inundate the island by the end of the century, Smith said he's witnessed evidence the bay is slowly taking over. Pointing to a patch of wet ground in front of his house, he said, "just in the last 10 years that spot has moved in."

Islanders point out that other coastal communities will also be inundated by rising water, including parts of Ocean City, Annapolis and even some waterfront in the Baltimore area.

They contend that losses on Smith Island could be slowed if the state and federal government followed through with shoreline protection projects proposed long ago.

A bulkhead was built around Tylerton several years ago. But two other projects mapped out by the Army Corps of Engineers — a $3 million jetty to protect Rhodes Point and a $30 million restoration of marsh buffering the northern end of the island — have never received funding from Congress, according to Kevin Brennan in the Corps' Baltimore District office.

Del Duco, Edmund and others say the more immediate threat is from the island's declining population. From 777 residents in the 1930s, the number had slipped to 276 when the last census was taken three years ago.

"We're barely able to keep the stores open now," Del Duco said. "If we lose 20 more people, there's a good chance stores will close."

While there are challenges to living on the island, many residents say they're outweighed by being so close to nature.

"I liken it to Walden's Pond," said Terri Baker who moved here almost nine years ago.

Baker, who said she's the island's only resident real estate agent, initially feared a buyout would kill her livelihood. But after looking into it more, she thinks it could help some elderly, infirm residents who want to move closer to health services but are unable to sell their homes.

She and others say there have been some promising developments in recent years, with a few new families moving here, at least one with children.

Gary Pusey, Somerset County's planning director, said the buyout is only a proposal, and state and local officials have until June 5 to finalize their plan to spend the federal recovery money. He noted that the county has $340,000 in other housing aid that can be spent now to help fix up houses.

Griffin said state officials also hope to secure more federal storm relief money, at least some of which might be directed toward helping maintain the island.

"The debate and deliberation will increase over time," Griffin said, "over what to do with islands like Smith. … I don't know that a lot of folks think building a seawall around an island is the best way to protect it."

But for now, at least, he added, "the state has no intention of turning its back on Smith Island."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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