Back home on their Range: Quail find Refuge on Restored Grassland by Tim Wheeler

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Dan Small, field ecologist for Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society, coordinates the Natural Lands Project, which works with private landowners to re-create Eastern Shore grassland habitat. (Dave Harp)

It’s a little past dawn on a foggy spring morning, but already the field on Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore is wide awake. From the cover of tall grass and a few shrubs, a multilingual chorus of birds greets the new day with a cacophony of chirps, warbles and whistles, like a symphony tuning up before the concert.

Then, amid the familiar trills of red-winged blackbirds and other feathered regulars, comes a call rarely heard any more in these parts — bob-white! Down a lane across the field, the black-and-white striped head of a Northern bobwhite quail pokes out of some short grass.

Once commonly heard, if not seen, in brushy meadows and hedgerows, quail have become scarce in Maryland and elsewhere as farming practices have changed, eliminating much of the ground-dwelling birds’ habitat. This 228-acre prairie along the Chester River — part of sprawling Chino Farms in Queen Anne’s County — has become a refuge for quail since it was converted from cropland nearly 20 years ago.

“You really can’t go many places on the Shore and hear this many [quail],” said Daniel Small, an ecologist with Washington College, the private liberal arts college in Chestertown that uses the tract as a research station and outdoor classroom.

Bill Harvey, game bird section leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, agrees, calling the number of quail there “unbelievable.”

“It used to be that just about everywhere was quail habitat,” Harvey said. But in the interests of cultivating crops more efficiently, modern farming has removed the fencerows that once segmented the land into small fields, along with shrubbery and weeds along the edge of croplands — all of which provided shelter for grassland birds.

“As time has gone on,” Harvey added, “the acreage has shrunk to the point where a lot of [the habitat’s that’s left] is not connected in a way that quail can use it.”

But at the college’s Chester River Field Station, switchgrass and waist-high bunches of broomsedge bluestem wave in the gentle breeze, an uncommon sight in a rural landscape dominated by vast uninterrupted fields of corn and soybeans, the staples of Shore agriculture.

A quail takes flight from the grasslands at Washington College’s Chester River Field Research Station on Chino Farms. (Dave Harp)

Quail use the cover of the tall grass and occasional shrubs to forage on the ground for seeds, leaves and insects. During mating season in spring, they call to one another with their trademark whistle and a series of other sounds. In the winter, the birds huddle together for shelter in groups called coveys.

Small, who lives in a house on the tract, said it’s not clear just how many quail inhabit the grassland, which occupies just a sliver of the 5,000-acre Chino Farms — owned by Dr. Harry Sears, a retired physician who’s on the college’s governing board. But “calling counts” conducted on a portion of the tract have tallied about 35 male birds in that immediate area.

Though the grassland looks wild and even a tad unkempt to the untrained eye, it’s actually managed to stay that way. In a rotation intended to sustain the grasses but vary their height across the tract, blocks of land are periodically mowed, sprayed with herbicide and set ablaze with controlled burns. Otherwise, shrubs and eventually trees would take over. While that would be a natural succession, the aim in this case is to retain a haven for wildlife that thrive only in prairie-type landscapes.

Though quail — a once-popular game bird — may be the most charismatic denizen of the Chester River tract, they’re not the only avian species that have a stake in the success of the grassland restoration. In essence, according to Small, they’re an “umbrella” species for lots of other birds that need similar habitat, such as the grasshopper sparrow and field sparrow.

Like quail, a number of other grassland birds are in decline across Maryland, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. At one time, as many as 80 nesting grasshopper sparrow pairs were spotted on the Chester River tract, Small said, but their numbers have slowly dropped over the years. On that spring morning, he said, he hadn’t heard a single call.

For the past few years, the college, through its Center for Environment & Society, has been working to persuade other Shore landowners to follow suit and re-establish some of the grassland habitat that’s been lost over the decades, in hopes of reversing those declines.
In 2015, the school teamed up with Shore Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group, to launch the Natural Lands Project, a bid to make some of the region’s farmland more wildlife friendly while also enhancing water quality by establishing grassy runoff buffers and wetlands along streams and rivers.

With the help of a $700,000 grant from the state DNR, the project team has enlisted 27 landowners in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. By the end of the year, it hopes to have converted 375 acres into grasslands, as well as another 36 acres into wetlands. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has kicked in $499,000 to create another 275 acres of upland habitat and 27 acres of wetlands, extending farther south into Talbot County.

“It’s not going to be for everyone, and we’re not trying to twist landowners’ or farmers’ arms to do this,” Small explained. “They have to want to create that change on the property.” But if someone has marginal cropland they’re willing to convert, he said, they can be compensated for taking the land out of production by signing up for one of the federal farmland conservation programs, with the project’s grant funding to help make up any difference.

Small said the team is most interested in working with landowners willing to convert at least 40–50 acres at a time, otherwise the habitat isn’t large enough to be really helpful. “You can’t expect to make a change in quail populations by doing five or 10 acres at a time,” he said. The project further attempts to create habitat on adjoining or at least nearby tracts, to create a corridor where quail can spread. The birds do not migrate or fly long distances.

Small said hunters are among the most receptive audience for the project’s habitat restoration pitch. They’d like to see Maryland’s small quail population grow and become more sustainable for hunting. New Jersey has banned quail hunting except on private game reserves, but it’s still legal to shoot wild quail in Maryland — if you can find them.

Harvey, the DNR game bird leader, said that while quail hunting has been restricted on public lands, wildlife managers have been reluctant to do likewise on private property because they believe it would undercut efforts to preserve and restore habitat.

“Just like Chino Farms and Dr. Sears,” Harvey pointed out, “a lot of the people interested and willing to take land out of production and spend the money it takes to manage for quail [are] at least somewhat interested in hunting for quail.”

Rob Leigh said that he and his wife Linda are still waiting to hear that distinctive “bob-white!” call on the 35 acres of farmland in Betterton that they turned into grassland and wildflowers 2.5 years ago.

Leigh, a retired dentist, recalls hearing the birds all the time when he was growing up on the Shore, and it’s what prompted him to place a portion of their 114-acre farm in the Natural Lands Project. He believes it’s only a matter of time until the birds take up residence there, as quail have been sighted just a few miles away.

Leigh said he was a little nervous at first about converting the cropland, which they’d been renting to a neighboring farmer to grow corn and soybeans. But the farmer found other land not far away, and Leigh said the lost rental income is covered by federal and grant funds.

Even without any quail yet, he added, they’re enjoying the sights and sounds of other wildlife on the converted cropland. “We see an immense array of different birds, of a variety I’ve never seen before,” he said. “The swallows and bluebirds, they just swoop up and down, they’re so fun to watch.” The patch of wildflowers planted in the center of the grassland has proven to be an insect magnet — drawing butterflies and so many bees that Leigh said they generate an audible buzz that carries across the field.

“I feel like we planted a prairie almost, it’s very lovely,” he said, calling the field “a kaleidoscope of color” in spring, first awash in yellow blooms and then hues of purple. “My wife loves it. She thinks it’s the best thing going.”

Timothy B. Wheeler is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

DCA Plans Changes in “Crazy Days,” First Friday

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Jennifer Laucik Baker, president of the Downtown Chestertown Association, tells the town council about plans for the annual sidewalk sale.    

The Downtown Chestertown Association has decided its annual “Crazy Days” sidewalk sale needs a new look. The answer – add wine and music!

At the July 2 meeting of the Mayor and Council, Jennifer Laucik Baker, president of the DCA, said this year’s sidewalk sale will feature several regional wineries and a distillery offering their wares on Friday evening, July 27. She requested a waiver of the town’s open container ordinance for Friday evening. In addition to the wineries, the evening will feature four or five local music groups performing at various locations throughout the downtown shopping district between 5 and 9 p.m. The name of the event will also be changed from “Crazy Days” to “Chestertown Sidewalk Sale.”

Baker said the idea was to make the annual sidewalk sale, scheduled for July 27 and 28, “a more vibrant event” in hopes of bringing more people into the community. “The event needs to evolve a bit,” she said, and to reflect the changing demographics of the business community. The addition of music and wine tasting should offer “more experiential-based opportunities in addition to retail opportunities during the event itself,” she said, with multiple events to engage a younger crowd. The evening will end at Bad Alfred’s Distillery with events to bring attendees inside.

The DCA also requested that Park Row be closed to traffic for part of the afternoon and evening Friday. An ice cream vendor, some food trucks and live music would be on the block. Baker said there are three new businesses on Park Row, and the idea was to attract attendees to that section of the town, which is separated from the rest of the shopping district by Fountain Park. Other music will be near Figg’s Ordinary, the former J.R.’s bar, and Skippy’s – again, with the intention of drawing people to parts of the shopping district they might not normally visit.

The event will continue on Saturday, but without the vineyards and with no street closing. Baker said there would be some live music Saturday.

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll recommended that the council approve the permits, describing the event as “First Friday on steroids.” The council approved the permit without dissent.

Baker also said the DCA is working in conjunction with the Kent County Arts Council and the Arts and Entertainment District to make a few changes in the First Friday format in coming months. She said the goal was to foster “a more arts-based event,” increasing live music and arts. She said First Fridays are already an important occasion for the town’s various galleries and arts-oriented businesses. “The next big First Friday we’re planning is September, which will be ‘Welcome back WAC’ for the Washington College crowd,” she said. The DCA is partnering with the college for events coordinated with orientation for new students, with the goal of making it an annual September experience.

Chestertown Mayor and Council — from left, Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver, Mayor Chris Cerino, Town Manager Bill Ingersoll, Councilwoman Linda Kuiper and Councilman David Foster     

Ingersoll told the council that residents of the Haacke Drive neighborhood have requested traffic calming along the street, in the form of two speed humps. Ingersoll said he thought the best locations for the humps would be near the intersection of Morgnec Road, near Magnolia Hall, and near the actual residential project which borders on Scheeler Road. He said the town has had “varying success” with speed bumps in town, citing the ones in front of the two schools as the most successful. In other neighborhoods, “they come and go,” he said. The broader humps cost $2,000 to $3,000, compared to the “more abrupt” speed bumps seen elsewhere, which cost $700 to $800, he said.

Ingersoll said he had spoken to Cerino about the issue of putting in the humps on a road that leads to the KRM business park now under construction at the north end of Haacke. He said a fair amount of traffic to the park would be using Haacke. He said he thought the town needs to talk to the builder before committing to the humps, but his recommendation would be to install them.

Councilwoman Linda Kuiper said there had been accidents at the four-way stop at the corner of Haacke and Scheeler. She said she hoped the four-way stop would not be taken out.

Ingersoll said he thought there would eventually be a light at that intersection, but until then the four-way stop is “an absolute necessity.” He said the density of zoning in the area meant that Haacke Drive would be “a little more traveled” than other town streets.

Cerrino said that the neighborhood had done everything the town asked for as far as gathering signatures on petitions and contacting the council. He said expected that the developer of the business campus “isn’t going to like it,” but that the residents of the neighborhood have a legitimate safety concern.

The council voted to authorize the bumps pending consultation with the neighborhood and the developer of the business campus.

Also, Ingersoll requested the council to authorize Mayor Chris Cerino to sign any papers relevant to a federal grant application that could result in the town receiving several million dollars for street repairs. The deadline for the application is July 19. Ingersoll said the grant will be very competitive, but he hopes the town could get $2 million to $2.5 million to repair the streets that have deteriorated the most. The grants, which focus on rural transportation, fall under the American Recovery Act. “This is a tremendous opportunity; it’ll take some work, but I believe it’s worth it,” he said. “We have to try to grab this ring while we can.”

The council approved the appointment of Dinah Hicks and Harold Somerville to the town Recreation Commission, pending completion of background checks.

Kuiper, in her ward report, called attention to the Kent County Historical Society, located in the Bordley Building at the corner of High and Cross Streets. She said the society is dedicated to preserving and commemorating the history and heritage of the county, with exhibits, lectures, and a research collection. She said it should not be confused, as some residents do, with the town’s Historic District Commission, which rules on building and construction in the historic district. She said that the Historical Society gets many phone calls from residents assuming it is responsible for enforcing the historic district regulations, and she wanted to clarify the difference between the two bodies.

At the end of the meeting, Cerino announced that the town hall bocce team had finished in second place in the town bocce tournament, losing the final match 17-13 after leading by as many as five points. He proudly displayed the trophy, promising a stronger finish in the future.

Mayor Chris Cerino displays the trophy for the town hall team’s second-place finish in the town bocce league.    

Chestertown Theater Looks to Open in August

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The facade of the former Chester Five movie theater awaits its new sign. The theater is projected to open under new management in August, more than a year after it closed.

Movie fans in Kent County will have to wait at least another month for the Chestertown theater to reopen.

Closed since June 2017, the theater attracted the interest of the Chesapeake Movies group last Fall. The Chestertown theater will be the first for Chesapeake Movies, though the principals have been active with Horizon Cinemas, which operates a number of theaters in the Baltimore area.

After negotiations with Silicato Development, which operates the Washington Square shopping center where the theater is located, the Chesapeake Movies group obtained a $75,000 economic development loan from the Kent County Commissioners. The Chestertown Mayor and Council agreed to repay the loan from proceeds of the town’s entertainment tax, which applies primarily to movie theaters. The town has received no revenues from the tax since the theater closed last year.

While the owners were at one point hoping to open by Memorial Day weekend, Mike Klein, one of the principals of Chesapeake Movies, said in a recent interview with the Spy that the opening is now expected to be in August. The renovation is, he said, is in process.  “We’re still cleaning the building out,” Klein said. “There was a lot left behind by the previous owner.” He said the new owners have taken out four dumpsters of material left behind, with more still to be removed. Among the items removed are the old seats, which Klein said were in poor condition and had to be destroyed. He said he had been contacted by one local theater interested in taking them if they were still usable, but “they were no good for anybody.” The old carpeting is also being replaced.

The theater is being completely rewired, with new digital projectors and sound equipment to be installed. Klein described the new equipment as “2018 technology.” “It’s going to be a nice community theater,” he said.

Among the renovations being planned is a complete upgrade of the theater’s heating and cooling systems, which is being paid for by Silicato Corp., the mall owner. The need to replace these systems was partly responsible for the renovations taking longer than originally planned, Klein said.

Also, the concession area is being completely renovated.  Offerings will depend on the kind of space available for preparation, but typical theater fare (popcorn, candy, etc.) may be expanded to include finger foods such as mini-pizza, chicken fingers or mozzarella sticks. The drinks will all be Coke products, Klein said.

The new owners are retaining the five-theater configuration. Not only does it reduce the amount of construction needed, it keeps the theaters at a reasonable size for the anticipated local audience. In fact, with the installation of higher-quality seats – including three rows of recliners – the overall capacity will be slightly reduced. Klein said the recliners take up twice the space of regular seats, so the three rows at the front of the auditorium will occupy the space of six rows of normal seats.

The film offerings will generally be first-run movies, but Klein said the owners would be open to offering art films or “marathons” of a popular star’s or director’s films. “I’m a movie guy, I love the old movies,” he said, adding that he was willing to “think outside the box” if there was enough community demand for something in addition to currently popular offerings. “Being an independent theater gives us the ability to do that,” he said. One option might be opening the theater for special showings during off-hours, such as before noon.

The owners haven’t settled on a price structure yet, but something in the neighborhood $6 to $8 a ticket is under consideration, Klein said. “We have to see what numbers we need to be profitable. We don’t want to charge what the big theaters charge.” Concession prices will also be in line with the local area, he said.

There will be a slightly higher price – “maybe a $2 upcharge” — for the reclining seats, which customers will be able to reserve in advance, either by phone or on the theater’s website. The rest of the theater will be general admission, Klein said.  There are likely to be lower prices for matinees, along with discounts for children, seniors or Washington College students – again, something like a $2 discount per ticket.

Klein said that Chesapeake Movies is trying, wherever possible, to use local contractors for all the work being done.  Klein said he could not say whether it would be early or late August for the opening but said he would keep us apprised of any progress or delays.

We look forward to the opening of the new theater.  Keep tuned for to the Spy for updates.

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Chestertown to Get Map of Water System

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Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes (R) tells Mayor Chris Cerino about bids for mapping the town’s water system.

Chestertown will be getting a new, state-of-the-art digital map of its water system.

Town Utilities Director Bob Sipes reported the results of a bid opening for creating the map at the July Utilities Commission meeting, at the beginning of the Monday council meeting.

“We got a large number of proposals for the mapping,” Sipes told the council. He said he had looked at the four lowest bidders as possible contractors for the map, which would include a graphic information systems computerized map showing all mains, hydrants, and valves, plus other necessary information to allow workers to maintain and perform repairs on the system. The contractor would also train town employees to edit the map and add features, so it wouldn’t be necessary to call in the contractor if the town added a development or annexation.

The town already has an up-to-date map of the wastewater system, which the new map would supplement. He has said he wants a complete map of the system to be available to any future utilities manager, both on paper and in electronic form. Sipes joked about putting the file on a thumb drive and putting it in a safe so it could be recovered if town hall was destroyed in a hurricane.

Earth Data, Inc., of Centreville, was fourth lowest bidder at $42,000. “I’m thinking because they’re local, they would be better suited to build the system and tend the system,” Sipes said. He recommended them over three lower bidders, all of whose proposals were in some way flawed. He said the prices for the license, at $7,000 for a perpetual license and $3,000 for a term license, were “the same for everybody.” He recommended having the work done all in a single year, to ensure consistency. If the town did it in three installments, “you don’t know if it’s going to be the same guy back, or that he can remember his processes” from one year to the next.

Earth Data is an environmental consulting firm that specializes in groundwater, geospatial, planning, watershed restoration and other environmental projects. The firm has done a number of local projects, including monitoring test wells on the grounds of the Chestertown hospital for oil leakage into the groundwater.

Sipes said the lowest bidder, at $33,500, did not cover the entire system. Another bidder’s proposal “looked good,” but when Sipes called their references, they didn’t recognize the name. He said the bidder told him they were a subcontractor on those bids, which he said should have been noted in the bid. A third bidder came in low, but didn’t include the software – which left them room to “jack up the contract,” Sipes said. He said some of the bidders went as high as $210,000 for the project.

The council unanimously authorized Sipes to accept the Earth Data bid.

Also in Sipes’ report, he said the town had received two bids for maintenance on the water towers. However, he said, he wasn’t satisfied with the responses and would like to rebid the project.

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Facing a Finite Future, Smith Islanders put Their Faith in Jetties and God By Jeremy Cox

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Only in a place like Smith Island would someone get choked up about a jetty, a man-made wall of stones that functions like a bulwark against waves and water currents.

Eddie Somers, a civic activist and native of the island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, delivered remarks at a recent press conference called by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to mark a milestone in the construction of two jetties off its western flank. He was close to finishing when he suddenly stopped, holding back tears — tears of joy.

“Those barrier islands were in danger of breaching in a couple places, and when that happens, you’re one hurricane away from losing your home,” he said when asked later about the moment. “So, for a lot of people, it’s emotional — not just me.”


Two men in a small boat motor toward the community of Ewell, on the north end of Smith Island. (Jeremy Cox)

On Smith Island, Maryland’s only inhabited island with no bridge connection to the mainland, residents prize self-reliance. But for more than two decades, Somers and his neighbors had been pushing for outside help to save their low-lying island properties from slipping away into the surrounding Bay.

Now, they’ve gotten it. Since 2015, federal, state and local sources have invested about $18.3 million in three separate projects on and around Smith Island, adding about two miles of reconstructed shoreline, several acres of newly planted salt marshes and hundreds of feet of jetties.

That money may buy a lot of jetty stones and sprigs of cordgrass, but all it can really buy is time, according to climate researchers and Army Corps officials.

As seas rise and erosion takes its toll — and the population shrinks — some homes have been abandoned on low-lying Smith Island, including this two-story house in the community of Rhodes Point. (Jeremy Cox)

Smith Island is an archipelago, with a population spread across three small communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. Since 1850, erosion and rising sea levels have put about one-third of the islands underwater. By 2100, the Bay is expected to rise by at least 3 more feet – bad news for a land that’s mostly less than 3 feet above current sea level.

Clad in fatigues, Col. Ed Chamberlayne, head of the Army Corps’ Baltimore District office, boarded the Maryland Department of Natural Resources research boat, Kerhin, after the press conference to tour the new jetties with an entourage of state and local officials. He described the $6.9 million project, which also includes dredging a boat channel and using the fill to restore about 5 acres of nearby wetlands, as a temporary fix.

“How long this will last is an obvious question,” Chamberlayne said. “As far as what this does to Smith Island long-term, this is not a cure-all.”

Col. Ed Chamberlayne, Baltimore district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, speaks with Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton on a ferry ride to Smith Island June 21 to view the completed jetties. (Jeremy Cox)

Nor are any of the other projects. So, with each inch of sea level rise and dollar spent fighting it, an old question gains more urgency: To what lengths should society go to defend Smith Island and other places believed to be highly vulnerable to climate change? Facing land losses of their own, coastal communities in Alaska and Louisiana are getting ready to relocate to new homes farther inland.

A similar debate hit Tangier Island, about 10 miles south of Smith Island in Virginia waters, after a 2015 Army Corps study declared that its residents may be among the first “climate refugees” in the continental United States. In the wake of a CNN report about the shrinking island last year, President Donald Trump, who has referred to global warming as a “hoax,” called its mayor to assure him he has nothing to worry about.

In a view shared by many on the boat, State Sen. Jim Mathias expressed confidence that the island would be around for a long while. “It’s man’s hand intervening,” said Mathias, a Democrat who represents the lower Eastern Shore. “We have the top engineers working for us. We’ll figure it out.”

When the final phase of the jetty project is completed this fall — channel dredging and marsh restoration remain — it will mark the end of a chapter in the community’s history that started with, as some residents interpreted it, its proposed destruction.

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy walloped the New Jersey coast and flooded lower Manhattan in New York City, and in Maryland caused extensive flooding in Crisfield and along the Bay shore in Somerset County. Smith Island suffered relatively little damage by comparison.

Still, state officials, conscious of the long-term threat to Smith posed by rising seas, set aside $2 million in federal relief money to buy out voluntary sellers. Plans called for homes or businesses acquired by the state to be torn down and future development to be banned on the properties.

“The people didn’t want to be bought out, and they were sort of insulted by it,” said Randy Laird, president of the Board of County Commissioners in Somerset County, which includes Smith island. “They felt like they (state officials) were trying to close down the island.”
The buyouts would have created a domino effect, Mathias said.

“Once it starts, it doesn’t stop,” he said. “It goes from one parcel to another parcel. And another family falls on hard times, and the state shows up with a check.”

Enter Smith Island United

The archipelago has lost nearly half its population since 2000. Among the fewer than 200 who remain, one-third are age 65 or older. Most young people leave after finishing high school for lack of jobs on the island. “We didn’t really have a voice in government,” Somers said.

To push back against the buyouts, residents formed a civic group and began hosting regular community meetings. Those talks turned into Smith Island United. Somers, a part-time resident and captain of a state icebreaker boat, was installed as its president.

Soon, the organization persuaded the state to drop its buyout offer in favor of a “visioning” study. The report, finalized in 2016, outlined several possible actions for reversing the downward course, ranging from creating a seafood industry apprenticeship program to providing more public restrooms for island visitors.

That same year, Maryland named Smith Island a “sustainable community,” giving the community access to a suite of revitalization initiatives from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and grant programs. The island received a $25,000 grant last year to fix store facades because of the program.

In the meantime, long-stalled plans to shore up Smith Island’s marshy coastline began to materialize. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built a $9 million “living shoreline” in the Glenn Martin National Wildlife Refuge, a marshy island that protects Smith’s north side from erosion. Then came a $4.5 million county project, completed in late 2017, that created another living shoreline on the island’s west side near Rhodes Point, the smallest of the island’s three communities and its most endangered spot.

The Army Corps complemented that work with the construction of two jetties earlier this year, one on either side of an inlet called Sheep Pen Gut. Workers are expected to return in the fall to dredge the channel, deepening it from 3 feet to 6 feet. That will restore vessel passage through the island, eliminating the circuitous, gas-wasting journey to the open Bay that some watermen have had to take since the inlet became too shallow.

Everett Landon caught a glimpse of the construction while standing on the second-floor balcony of a home still under construction. “It looks very good,” said Landon, a Rhodes Point native who last year took over as pastor of the island’s three churches. “With the erosion we’ve been facing, people have been wondering how long until it makes them move away.”

The Rhodes Point jetty project had been on the books at the Army Corps since the mid-1990s. Some residents had all but given up hope that it would ever get built. “You get a community that struggles a lot, and you get a project like this — it puts the wind in your sails. It just shows persistence,” Landon said.

He added that the help is especially welcome in Rhodes Point, where the 40 or so remaining residents live on an ever-shrinking strip of high ground. For his part, Landon measures that loss in the gradual disappearance of a beach once visible — high and dry — beyond the marsh that fringes Rhodes Point. “My grandmother told me that when she was younger, she could sit on the second floor of her home and all she could see was sand,” he said. “When I was growing up, it was just a narrow strip and then marsh. When my kids came along, it was just gone.”

Most Smith Island residents have incomes tied to the seafood industry, from the crabs they catch or pick or the oysters they dredge. Support for Trump was near-unanimous on the island in 2016, and most share his skepticism toward human-caused climate change. They concede that their island is vanishing, but they prefer to speak of it in terms of erosion instead of sea level rise.

Marianna Wehnes moved to Smith Island in 2011 to live with her boyfriend, and she quickly fell in love – with the island. After her relationship with the man ended, Wehnes moved back to the mainland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but soon returned. She missed the community’s tranquil way of life and knowing her neighbors. She now works in one of Ewell’s gift shops, where it is considered a busy day if eight customers walk through the door.

The new jetties and restored marsh will help keep the island above water for a while, Wehnes agreed. Beyond that, she added, Smith Island’s fate will be up to a higher power. “It’s been here 400 years, and it’s going to be here for 400 years. The only reason it won’t be is if the good Lord tells it to go.”

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer and a communications instructor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD, where he is based.

Colvin Wins Democratic Primary in First District Race

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Jesse Colvin is on track to win over his five opponents in the Democratic Primary for the Congressional District 1. With 225 of 294 precincts reported, Colvin is leading the field with 38% of the vote count followed by Allison Galbraith at 27.8% and Michael Brown at 14.6%.

The Spy will have complete election totals for all local races on Wednesday morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elliot Named Executive Director for Chestertown Hospital

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University of Maryland Shore Regional Health CEO Ken Kozel has announced that Kathy Elliott, RN, MSN, REA- BC, Director of Nursing at Shore Medical Center in Chestertown, has been named as Executive Director of UM Shore Medical Center at Chestertown.

Elliott, a lifelong resident of Kent County, holds a Master of Science in Nursing from Walden University and earned her RN from Wor-Wic Community College. She began her career at the hospital in Chestertown in 1988 and has a broad background in clinical and management services, having served in medical-surgical, critical care, surgery and post-surgery care as well as outpatient services. She was named Director of Nursing at Chestertown in 2017.

“Kathy’s experience, both clinically and operationally, make her a tremendous asset to our organization and Chestertown,” comments Ken Kozel, president and CEO, UM Shore Regional Health. “Her commitment to the patient experience and representing the needs of the community will serve residents of Kent County and Shore Regional Health well in this position.”

Elliott reports directly to Kozel in this role and serves on the senior executive team, while maintaining her role as a nurse executive for Shore Regional Health.

Chesapeake Bay’s Dead Zone to Grow this Summer; Breaks with Wave of Good News

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The Chesapeake Bay’s infamous “dead zone” will be larger than average this summer, scientists suggest in a new forecast that breaks with a wave of encouraging signs about the estuary’s health.

If their prediction is correct, 2018 will be the fourth year in a row that the size of the Bay’s oxygen-starved area has increased. The forecasted expansion can be chalked up to nutrients flushed into the Bay during the spring’s heavy rains, according to researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan.

“The size is going to go up and down every year depending on the weather,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist and one of the report’s authors.

A “dead zone” is a popular term for waters that have very little oxygen (hypoxic) or none at all (anoxic). Fish tend to flee, and any marine life that can’t escape — usually shellfish — could suffocate.

New evidence seems to arrive almost daily suggesting that humans are turning the tide against the Chesapeake Bay’s many woes. Bay grasses are flourishing. Waters are less murky. Despite a harsh winter, the blue crab population’s rebound appears undaunted. Officials and scientists at a press conference on June 15 celebrated the Bay’s ability to maintain moderately healthy conditions in 2017 for the third year in a row.

But the dead zone has remained persistently large over the years, though it has been disappearing slightly earlier at the end of the summer.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, higher than average spring rains brought more than 85 million pounds of nitrogen into the Bay from the Susquehanna River, the primary source of nutrient pollution in the main portion of the Chesapeake. The Potomac River delivered another 30 million pounds to the Bay.

As a result, the dead zone is expected to be an average of 1.9 cubic miles this summer, a 5 percent increase over 2017, according to the forecast. That area of “hypoxic,” or low oxygen, water represents about 15 percent of the Bay’s total volume. Those numbers haven’t changed much over the years, said UMCES researcher Jeremy Testa, a co-author of the report.

Dead zone conditions already appeared to be forming in May, according to water quality-tracking by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The DNR Eyes on the Bay website showed that dissolved oxygen levels measured in early June had dipped into the danger zone for fish and shellfish from the Baltimore Harbor south to (and extending into) the Patuxent River. Along the Eastern Shore, the north-south boundaries are rougly the same — from Tolchester Beach in Kent County south to Dorchester County, across from the Patuxent.

Dead zones form are caused by excessive nutrients in the water, which cause algae to bloom. Ultimately, the algae die and sink to the bottom, where they are consumed by bacteria in a process that uses up the oxygen in the water. Low-oxygen waters are found throughout the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Baltic Sea.

The Chesapeake’s dead zone has ballooned since recordkeeping began in the 1950s as growing cities and farm fields shunted more nitrogen into the Bay, researchers say. One of the main goals of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay restoration program is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads — and shrink the dead zone.

The typical summer dead zone has measured about 1.7 cubic miles of water since 1985, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. The largest recorded was 2.7 cubic miles in 2011.

While hypoxic water remains stubbornly abundant, anoxic conditions — the very worst areas where there is virtually no oxygen — are gradually improving, Testa said. This year’s anoxic portion of the Bay is expected to be 0.43 cubic miles.

Testa attributes the improved anoxic conditions to gradual reductions in the Susquehanna’s nitrogen concentration that began in the 1980s. Scavia said this year’s forecasted expansion isn’t too concerning because rain appears to be the main culprit.

“It’s the long-term trend that really matters,” he said.

by Jeremy Cox

Bay Journal staff writer Jeremy Cox teaches communications at Maryland’s Salisbury University. He has written for daily newspapers since 2002, most recently as an environment reporter for the Daily Times in Salisbury, where he is based.

Council to Pursue Tax Differential Answers

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(L-R) Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino, Town Manager Bill Ingersoll, and council members Linda Kuiper and David Foster

The Chestertown Council is exploring ways to recover the tax differential the town was at one time granted by Kent County. Councilman David Foster raised the issue at the end of the council’s Monday, June 18 meeting.

A tax differential, a payment or a discounted rate designed to compensate the county’s five towns — Chestertown, Rock Hall, Millington, Galena, and Betterton — for services such as police protection and street repair. With the towns providing those services, the counties are saved much of the cost of providing them. In the case of Chestertown, those services amount to some $3 million in the FY 2019 town budget.

Kent County stopped providing a tax differential in 2014 as a result of the 2008 recession, which led to a decline in tax revenues. At one point, the differential took the form of a “grant in aid” payment that amounted to some $116,000 at its peak – an amount that, as Mayor Chris Cerino noted, would allow the town to repave a couple of streets, at the very least. Cerino and Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said they had approached the County Commissioners about a resumption of the tax differential during the county budget deliberations the last couple of years. Ingersoll said the county’s answer was, “You’re on the radar,” but no action was taken to restore the lost payment.

Foster said he had very little idea what tax differential was before being elected to the council last year. “I was embarrassed; I had property in town for over 20 years, and I had never, ever heard of it.” At the annual Maryland Municipal League (ML) meeting in Ocean City earlier this month, Foster asked representatives of other towns in the state whether they were receiving a tax differential. All the ones he asked said they were receiving either a direct payment or a discounted rate on the county property tax; in most cases, they said the amount had grown by 60 percent over the last few years. In contrast, Foster noted that Chestertown’s tax differential has “decreased by 100 percent.” According to Foster’s research, there are only three counties in the state that don’t provide some form of tax relief to their towns. Foster said he asked the county commissioners why they didn’t provide a differential, “and they kind of mumbled, ‘Oh, we don’t have the money.’ How is it all these other counties can do this?” Foster asked.

The commissioners, during a June 5 public hearing on the county budget, said that flat revenues and rising prices have forced them to make difficult choices, including some reductions of staff and trimming budget requests from many county departments. They did not mention the tax differential.

One commissioner was given the opportunity to address the question at a candidates’ forum for Republican candidates for commissioner, sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Chestertown Councilwoman Linda Kuiper asked the candidates if they supported restoring the differential. Commissioner Billy Short, who is running for reelection, said the commissioners hope to restore the differential within five years. He said he would support it in the form of a reduced tax rate for the town, “giving the money directly back to the taxpayers.” Short said he didn’t understand why Chestertown needs to budget $1.8 million for police work. He went on to say there is considerable duplication of services between the town and county. “Our officers actually operate within Chestertown as well,” with Sheriff’s deputies frequently patrolling the streets, he said. The county also performs some road work within town, he said.

Recapitulating the exchange at the council meeting, Kuiper said that Short had cited the cost of the county’s high-speed internet project as a benefit the town was receiving. “I’m not seeing the advantages of it yet,” she said. She also noted that the Chestertown police department responds to calls for service beyond town limits, benefitting the county. “It didn’t take me very long to decide which commissioner candidate I was going to vote for,” she said.

The county’s property tax rate remains unchanged at $1.022 per $100 assessed value, and the income tax rate is also unchanged. Chestertown raised its property tax rates, which are in addition to the county taxes, by five cents to $0.42 per $100 assessed value.

Foster said he had spoken to Ryan Spiegel, the president-elect of MML about the problem, and was encouraged to write a request for the organization to consider it as an issue it would lobby for in Annapolis. He said the request might gain more attention with the General Assembly because Ocean City is suing Worcester County over the issue. If there were no objections, Foster said he would like to submit a letter requesting that the MML support a requirement that all counties provide a tax differential. He noted that the state code differentiates between counties that “may” provide such a differential and those that “shall,” with Kent falling into the former category. Nine of the state’s counties–primarily the larger, more urban counties–are required to grant some form of tax differential to the incorporated towns as those residents who are in practically all cases already paying taxes for services which the county therefore does not need to provide. Foster said that one of the questions he wanted to ask MML was how the town might go about changing the county’s status from “may” to “shall.”

Cerino asked if such a change would require the local delegates to the General Assembly to support the measure. “It would certainly help,” said Foster. “I think it’s an uphill battle.”

“I totally agree with you; it’s crazy we don’t get anything,” Cerino said. He noted that Chestertown has one-quarter of the county’s population. “For those of you who live in Chestertown, you’re paying full property tax rates to the county, and you’re basically getting no services in return,” he said. “Technically, you’re getting police protection, but 99 out of 100 calls for service are answered by our police.” He listed other services not being supplied by the county to town residents, including snow removal, trash collection, and recycling–services which are provided to residents who live outside the town limits. “What we’re getting is, we’re underwriting services for everyone else in the county. And that’s why (the county commissioners) don’t want to give us a rebate. They have a great deal, they know it, and they have no impetus to change it.”

Foster noted that the majority of the county’s small businesses are located in the towns, and therefore are subject to the higher property tax rates, whether directly or through higher rent payments. That makes the issue one of economic development as well as of fairness, he said. “It’s worth a shot” to try to push for legislative action, he said. He also noted that the makeup of the county commission may change after the November election.

Foster said he would be happy to draft the letter to MML. “It’s not just for Kent County,” he noted. “There’s already 13 counties that fall under this ‘may provide.’ So we’re not alone in this.”

Councilman Marty Stetson suggested that Foster write the letter and the rest of the council add their signatures. Cerino said he would be glad to sign it, but he said it would be important to get more town residents to support the issue. He noted that most are unaware that there is any problem.

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver asked if it would be worthwhile to mount a public relations campaign to inform residents of the issue. Foster said he hoped the media were listening and that they would report on the council discussion. The other thing the town can try to do is get groups like the League of Women Voters to add it to the list of questions they ask candidates for office, he said.

Councilman Marty Stetson said that council members who get complaints about their votes to increase town taxes can reply that the increase wouldn’t have been necessary if the county were still providing the tax differential.

Ingersoll said he had made that point during budget discussions. “A simple way to understand it is ‘double taxation,’” he said. He said the commissioner’s saying a restoration of the tax differential was “on their radar” was hard to understand in an election year. “On whose radar? Are you going to be in or out?” he asked to wrap up the discussion as the council moved on to other issues.

Look for continuing coverage of this issue as it evolves.  As available, the Spy will post copies of the letters on the tax differential from the town of Chestertown to Kent County and to the Maryland Municipal League or other relevant documents.

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