Smith Island can help to save itself


September 25, 1993|By TOM HORTON

This is a tale of two islands, both with cultures that are among the Chesapeake Bay's unique treasures.

One, Tangier Island, Va., is set to sail into the next century. The other, Smith Island in Maryland, faces a much more uncertain course.

They seem so very similar -- only six miles apart, both settled nearly three centuries ago by hardy folk from the southwest of England.

The only two offshore inhabited islands in the Chesapeake, both depend almost totally on harvesting crabs, fish and oysters, their watermen often working within sight of one another.

But Tangier fairly bustles with life. Its stores are well-stocked, its population stable at about 725 people. A house for sale or rent is a rarity.

The situation on Smith reflects a population that has dropped in the last half century from more than 800 to 424, by the island preacher's latest head count.

The job of choice these days for its young watermen seems to be that of guard at the new prison on the mainland. A rarity on the island nowadays is the birth of a baby.

And every year another few houses "go dark," as the islanders say -- either become vacant or are sold for use as summer homes.

The two islands differ in some ways that only partly explain their contrasting courses.

Tangier has an airport and generally more tourism, to the point that locals don't care to walk the streets many afternoons. And Tangier has better access to a winter crab fishery, while Smith's traditional winter oystering has slumped.

Tangier kids go through high school on the island, while Smith's, after sixth grade, must make an arduous, two-hour round trip by boat to Crisfield every day.

L Geography is perhaps the key difference between the islands.

Because high ground is scarce, Tangier has developed as a single community with a town government. Though equally scarce, Smith's high ground is split three ways, and the population is scattered among three communities. With no local laws to unite them, these towns often operate almost as separate islands.

Most revealing is Smith's response to an erosion problem that threatens the town of Rhodes Point. In the short term, it's a crisis; but it just might turn out to be one of those defining moments that ushers in a brighter future.

An extraordinary meeting

To see what could be done before the last sliver of land between Rhodes Point and the bay dissolves, Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Eastern Shore's congressman, convened an extraordinary meeting in the town a few weeks ago.

From the Army Corps of Engineers to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has an environmental education center in the island town of Tylerton, speaker after speaker from federal, state and private interests pledged strong support.

No one minimized the obstacles, the greatest of which would be cost; the corps estimated that protecting the shoreline with material dredged from local channels and with permanent rock "riprap" would cost up to $5 million.

$250,000 is formidable

Under standard corps definitions of economic feasibility, such a large project for such a tiny place might not make the grade; and even then, the island and Somerset County, in which it lies, might be looking at a local share of $250,000.

Island and county representatives said they didn't see how they could afford anything, let alone that much, and asked the corps for cheaper, albeit temporary, solutions.

It now appears the Army engineers may be able to use a "geotube," a new type of fabric cylinder, filled with dredge material, to give the island short-term protection at minimal cost.

That would be a tremendous plus, and certainly better than continued erosion; but I can't help but feel it just puts off the broader issue of Smith Island's survival as a viable community.

Consider Virginia and Tangier's response more than a decade ago when that island solved a similar crisis by erecting a permanent 4,000-foot-long sea wall at a cost of nearly $4 million.

The Tangier community, to prove its interest, committed to raising $200,000. For years islanders held bake sales, sold T-shirts and paintings of the island, and sought contributions.

SOS was everywhere

Every store and restaurant greeted tourists with SOS (Save Our Seawall) containers on the counters, and letters went out to everyone in human memory who had ever grown up or lived on the island. Moreover, local property taxes were doubled for five years.

The island's county, Accomack -- a poor, rural jurisdiction like Somerset -- seconded the local effort by kicking in another $200,000 over several years.

This in turn spurred Virginia's congressional delegation to push through special federal funding that declared Tangier a "national resource" and bypassed normal corps standards for economic feasibility.

Islanders could do much

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