Somerset drops buyout of Smith Island homes

A proposed buyout of Smith Island homeowners to help them escape future damage from tropical storms and rising waters has been dropped amid vocal resistance from residents of the low-lying community in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Somerset County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday not to offer buyouts with any of the $8.6 million in federal aid the lower Eastern Shore county is in line to receive to help it recover from the ravages of superstorm Sandy last fall.

Rex Simpkins, president of the county commissioners, said local elected officials were swayed by the outpouring of opposition to the idea.

"They wouldn't even leave during the storm," Simpkins said Wednesday, so he wasn't surprised that islanders didn't welcome an offer to help them leave now. Only about half the island's population evacuated before Sandy hit in late October, which flooded hundreds of homes in Crisfield, but did relatively little damage on Smith, a 45-minute boat ride from the mainland.

State officials, in consultation with the county, had proposed using $2 million in federal storm recovery funds to offer to buy out island residents who wanted to relocate. The money would have paid for purchasing and bulldozing a handful of the island's 100-plus homes, officials explained, with the cleared land permanently set aside after that as public space.

The buyout was intended to help islanders get "out of harm's way," according to state officials, and as more prudent than fixing up homes on an isolated patch of sand and marsh that's been gradually washing away over the nearly four centuries since it was first settled. With scientists projecting that climate change could raise sea level two to four feet by the end of the century, nearly all of the island could be under water — as would a lot of other low-lying land around the bay, including in the Baltimore area.

A group of islanders, including newcomers and those who trace their roots back to the original settlers, bridled at the buyout plan. They complained it sent a message to the public that their historic fishing community was doomed to wash away and not worth trying to preserve. Organizing under the name "Smith Island United," the opponents went public with their objections on social media and through an email and letter-writing campaign.

Erlene Wilson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said state officials are consulting with the county still, but likely would add the $2 million to the money already earmarked for helping repair storm-damaged homes and businesses in the hard-hit county.

"We'll do what we can do and we'll just see how it goes," said Simpkins.

John Del Duco, a transplanted New Yorker who helped with the fight, expressed relief at the county's decision. He and others had argued that the island's more immediate threat is from losing any more residents. Its population has dwindled from nearly 800 early in the last century to fewer than 300 now.

Terri Baker, another transplant who is a real estate agent on the island, had argued for the buyout, saying some residents had expressed interest in it to her. She argued that the fund was small enough that it wouldn't really hurt the island's vitality, and it might help a few elderly or sickly residents move closer to health care and other services that are not available on the island.

Despite their disagreement over the buyout, both said the controversy had prompted the normally self-reliant islanders to get together and talk about taking collective action. None of the three communities on the island has a local government.

"I think in the long run this is going to be very positive for us," Del Duco said. "I think it shocked the community into realizing that we need to organize, and we need to stay focused now in dealing with our erosion problems, like other communities are dealing with theirs."

"Regardless of what happens in the end, we'll just all work together," Baker said. "That's the island way."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com