Smith Island harbor feels threat of gentrification


October 25, 2005|By TOM HORTON

TYLERTON -- The fall crab run is on, and oysters are fetching record prices here on Smith Island, Maryland's only offshore fishing community.

So why are watermen and their families here talking as if their world, out here on this dab of marsh 10 miles from the mainland, might be ending? We think that if we maintain the bay's water quality, and sustain its fisheries, watermen will thrive.

But with waterfront property fetching insane prices from Norfolk to Havre de Grace, just maintaining space for their boats and communities along the Chesapeake's edges is becoming ever more a problem for the commercial man.

"We're losing ground all the time, up and down the bay, with property getting so expensive watermen can't compete," says Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

Two weeks ago, without notice other than an ad in the local paper, tiny Tylerton's 54 residents discovered that Somerset County was putting its only boat harbor up for bids - part of a county sale of "surplus" properties.

I've frequented the island for 30 years, and until recently I might have laughed and thought, "Good luck getting bids on that place."

The harbor's no pleasure marina. It's emphatically working waterfront: 25 or so bare-bones slips; a cluster of weathered, plywood shanties where the watermen shed soft crabs; and narrow, watch-your-step planked walkways strewn with crab pots, old engines, rusty oyster tongs and assorted detritus.

But condo fever's hit Somerset County now. Crisfield, the nearest mainland port, is rapidly turning its working waterfront, dockside restaurants and hardware stores into high-rise dwellings.

Up north at Deal Island, one of the traditional watermen's marinas, privately owned, is being sold for $6 million.

The mania has spread to Smith Island, where 81 acres of buggy dredge spoil and wetlands, fronted by shallow water and mud flats, just sold for more than a million dollars in Ewell, the largest of Smith's three villages.

No one now would be surprised to see a big bid come in to develop the 3.5 acres of county property that makes up Tylerton's harbor.

The place would no doubt look beautiful. But it wouldn't be a place for watermen anymore.

"It would devastate us," says Kevin Marshall, president of the local watermen's association on Smith Island and a lifelong Tylerton resident.

The harbor may not look like much, but it's the heart of the watermen's existence here, "where you always go when you want to find anybody," Marshall says.

He and other residents say losing the only protected boat docking that most watermen have here would finish Tylerton as a fishing town.

"It doesn't take much these days to push someone to move to the mainland," says Marshall, who has seen the town's population plummet from a couple hundred to its present 54 year-round residents in the past few decades.

County officials say they faced major repairs to Tylerton's boat harbor, with no prospect of recouping the cost, since watermen in Tylerton don't pay rent for their slips as do boaters in other county harbors.

"I'd say more than anything, that's what led to the current situation," said Charles Massey, the Somerset County administrator.

Watermen in Tylerton say that while they had refused to pay an annual slip fee - the county wants $400 - they had no warning it would lead to putting the place up for sale.

The county could legally reject all bids it gets, and islanders, along with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which runs an education center in Tylerton, are urging the five-man Board of Commissioners to do so.

The sale has also drawn the attention of U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who says in a letter to the commissioners that millions of federal dollars have been invested in channel dredging and erosion protection "to help protect the island's heritage."

Privately, some commissioners have told islanders that if they can agree on paying slip fees, the offer to sell the harbor might be withdrawn.

One hopes they're right. But why does the county need such a hammer - threatening to erase one of the bay's unique communities - to collect rents it could have imposed?

Chesapeake watermen are an independent and sometimes unruly breed, and many who deal with them - public officials, environmentalists, regulators - have probably thought at one time or another that things would be easier without them.

But hardly anyone really means that. Without watermen, the Chesapeake scene would be vastly diminished. Nor is it just a matter of aesthetics. To lose watermen would risk lowering the bar for bay water quality.

Shipping, industrial use of cooling water, recreational boating, even swimming - all can manage in water ranging from filthy to moderately degraded.

More than any of these uses, a healthy, diverse commercial fishery requires a clean bay.

Saving Tylerton's boat harbor is the immediate issue. It's also in the state's interest to ensure that as long as we have watermen, they are guaranteed affordable space along the bay's increasingly high-priced and fast-developing edges.

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