Island community passes on its keys

As Smith Island's full-time population dwindles, its houses are being scooped up as second homes by mainland residents who are seeking quiet and isolation on the Chesapeake Bay.

September 04, 2005|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EWELL -- From her trim front yard in this village on Maryland's Smith Island, Yvonne Harrison, 62, can count a half-dozen "For Sale" signs along the spine of sandy high ground that serves as a one-lane Main Street.

Men and women who have spent their lives struggling to earn a living from the Chesapeake Bay have decided it is time to move on. That is not surprising. What is new is the robust market of people who want to buy their homes.

Houses in the island's three tiny towns are being scooped up as second homes by mainlanders who can't resist the quiet and isolation -- not to mention prices that seem like bargains to metropolitan-area residents.

"As time goes on, it looks like this is becoming a getaway place for weekenders and summer people," Harrison says, adding that she and her husband plan to sell their bungalow soon.

For years, islanders have watched their population trickle away, matching the steady decline of Maryland's seafood industry mainstays -- oysters and crabs. With older residents dying and harvests plummeting, fewer and fewer young people have wanted to live here.

In 1980, 606 people lived on Smith Island. A decade ago, the island's population stood at about 380. Now, about 260 live here full time.

Lately, though, the island's part-time population has been expanding in a way no one could have imagined a few years ago. Some are guessing that if the part-timers were counted, they would outnumber year-round residents.

In Tylerton, locals have begun calling their unincorporated community "Little Pennsylvania," a reference to the newcomers from that state who have been lured by Tylerton's low-key ambiance.

"Of 66 houses in Tylerton, 25 are owned by part-timers," says Duke Marshall, who owns the village's only store, the Drum Point Market. "But the good news is that the new people seem to want our serenity. They're making a substantial investment here, and in the long run, that's got to be positive. They have a stake in preserving what they liked in the first place."

Buying and selling

In the past year, a dozen houses in Tylerton, Ewell and Rhodes Point, the island's third village, have changed hands -- everything from white clapboard farmhouses to shingled bungalows and ranchers. A dozen more are on the market.

Prices range from $69,900 to as much as $265,000, and waterfront houses are available for less than $150,000. Five years ago, the median price of a house on Smith was $55,000. Now it is $120,000, says Martin Tyler, a real estate agent from Crisfield who grew up on the island.

Tyler says he has had more than a few clients flee from mosquitoes and flies before they finished looking at property. He is quick to explain to people that Smith Island is not a resort.

"It has to be just about the last place where a workingman might be able to afford waterfront property," Tyler says. "But I think some of the people looking around over here are seeing palm trees. This is not Hawaii. It's still a working waterman's town."

Rob and Wanda Floros knew right away that there was no confusing Smith with the tropics. The couple from Valley Forge, Pa., bid on a house the first time they came here.

That was in March, and by June, they paid $147,000 for a well-kept, two-story cottage across the street from the Ewell Harbor that they say is an ideal second home.

The couple, both 51, like being two doors down from the Methodist parsonage and just up the street from Ruke's -- a combination restaurant, grocery and antiques store that claims to make the best crab cakes anywhere. They put kayaks in the water about 25 yards from their front yard.

"The real draw here is the people," says Rob Floros, a surgeon who has given up medicine to start an Internet marketing firm. "I've been out with a waterman I met, scraping for soft crabs. Our second weekend here, we were invited to a wedding, including the banquet. They're just salt-of-the-earth people."

David Mahla, a contractor from Johnstown, Pa., who bought a house across the street from the church in Tylerton, agrees. "People are just so open," he says.

Full- and part-timers

Marshall says the newcomers haven't affected business at his store much. They seem to prefer hauling most of their food and supplies over on the ferries that connect the island to Crisfield. Students at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's island education center, plus a growing number of tourists and day-trippers, provide a boost, though, as do guests at two island bed-and-breakfasts.

Full-time residents concede that part-timers might be put off by the quirky hours kept at the Drum Point, as well as at the two restaurants and other small businesses in Ewell.

In the summer, everybody closes for dinner about 4 p.m. and reopens for a bit two hours later. The schedule is designed to accommodate watermen who are often tending crab pots well before dawn.

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