Rhodes Point looks for help against bay Erosion threatens Smith Island village

August 09, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

RHODES POINT -- If Maxine Landon looks due west from the front steps of her waterfront house on Smith Island, she can see approximately where some of the Bradshaw clan lived a century ago.

The area is just beyond the muddy and shallow Shanks Creek and a low-lying buffer of beach called Hog Neck Peninsula.

The spot where the Bradshaws lived and where sheep and cows used to graze is now under water, covered by the encroaching Chesapeake Bay. In the past 100 years, the bay has swallowed more than 1,200 acres, or 14 percent, of Smith Island.

The bay, which has provided sustenance for 13 generations of island watermen and their families, seems to want something in return. And through countless nibbles, its ceaseless waves are slowly taking the land.

Although erosion affects nearly every foot of shoreline in and around this quaggy archipelago in the Lower Chesapeake, no one feels more threatened by it than Mrs. Landon and the 85 or so other folks who live in Rhodes Point.

Ewell and Tylerton, the other two Smith Island villages, have fewer erosion problems because they have less western exposure.

Hog Neck Peninsula is the only buffer between the bay's choppy waters and the Rhodes Point community of houses and crab shanties. And when high tides and westerly winds join forces, what little remains of Hog Neck can't keep the Chesapeake from knocking at Mrs. Landon's door.

"I get salt spray on my windows," she said. "We've had to put my fence back up I can't count how many times."

Unless measures are taken to stop the erosion, said Mrs. Landon, she won't have to worry about fixing the fence. "There won't be any land left, and we'll have moved away."

After touring the fragile Hog Neck Peninsula by boat, Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Republican congressman from the 1st District, pledged recently to convene a meeting of federal and state shoreline erosion specialists to consider whether the buffer can be preserved and how much it would cost.

"I'm of a frame of mind that if you have a project you want to do," he said, "there's no reason you can't pursue creatively a solution and then find funding."

Mr. Gilchrest said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told him recently that the most effective erosion control measure might be using heavy stones as either a breakwater or sea wall erected parallel to the shoreline. But that could be an expensive solution.

Cost estimates for a similar project that the corps considered for the Rhodes Point area in 1979 were as high as $1.4 million. Mr. Gilchrest said the current price could be more than $2 million.

The proposal was dropped in 1980 when Somerset County refused to share the costs.

County officials still say they are not inclined to help.

"I sympathize with them out there," said Philip Gerald, head of the county commission. "But we don't have enough money to take care of their roads. If the erosion continues the way it is, they'll have to leave and move on up higher on the island."

Hog Neck shrinking

Meanwhile, Hog Neck continues to shrink, leaving Rhodes Point more vulnerable than ever to erosion. The weakest part of the protective barrier is an uneven strip a few hundred yards long and less than 300 feet wide between Rocking Point Gut and No Name Gut, two narrow waterways linking Shanks Creek and the bay.

The state would be willing to help preserve a public beach but can't pay to stabilize privately owned shoreline, said Leonard M. Larese-Casanova, shore erosion control director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

That's an obstacle that John E. Jacobs Jr. said can be overcome. A retired Salisbury lawyer, Mr. Jacobs has owned 30 acres of Hog Neck for 20 years.

"I wouldn't have any objection to giving it to the state," he said.

According to Maryland assessment records, the full value of Mr. Jacobs' 30 acres is $900.

The full value of the 30 Rhodes Point properties most likely to be threatened by erosion if Hog Neck disappears is $1.1 million, or about half the cost of the shoreline stabilization that Mr. Gilchrest envisions.

Smith Islanders argue that comparing cost estimates and the value of the property should not decide if Rhodes Point is worth saving.

"There's history here," said Jennings Evans, an islander who lives in nearby Ewell but whose roots are in Rhodes Point. "Some people think that's important."

Price of independence

Efforts to secure public funding for erosion control have been hampered partly by the islanders' own sense of independence, according to Mr. Evans.

Like Ewell and Tylerton, Rhodes Point has no formal town government. A straw poll taken of Smith Island adults four years ago asking them if they wanted to become an incorporated municipality was rejected 165 to 32. The vote confirmed the islanders' preference to be free of local government, but it also meant they could not levy taxes on themselves. So, they must turn to county, state and federal governments for help.

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