Smith Island releases its Vision Plan for a thriving and resilient future

When the State of Maryland surveyed residents of Smith Island last year about their hopes for the future, the responses captured both their deep love and concerns for their home — Maryland’s last inhabited island in the Chesapeake Bay reachable only by boat. One resident said of his life on Smith Island: “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” Another wondered how Smith Island might be made more attractive to outsiders.

 

 

Now a newly-released Vision Plan is helping islanders navigate the challenges ahead, while preserving what matters most — a way of life and spirit of community that make Smith Island an historical, cultural and environmental national treasure.

 

 

Questions about the future of Smith Island after Hurricane Sandy prompted the nine-month Visioning process, which is seen by many as an essential first step in taking control of their future. “This process turned out to be exactly what we needed to do,” said Vision Plan Steering Committee member Eddie Somers, who admitted to being skeptical at the beginning.

 

 

Launched in fall 2014, the Visioning was a community-led process that sought input on how to preserve the island’s distinctive history and culture, while making sure that it is still thriving 30 years from now.

 

 

About 275 people call Smith Island home, and most families have been here for generations. Many work as “watermen” who make their living fishing, crabbing, and oystering on the Chesapeake Bay. In warmer months the population can swell by several hundred as kayakers, bird watchers, hunters, part-timers, and those seeking an authentic slice of Maryland State’s official dessert, Smith Island Cake, make the 12-mile ferry ride over from Crisfield. To visitors, Smith Island is a present day link to a traditional, hard-working way of life that once dominated the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

 

 

To many residents, Smith Island’s land and seascapes connect them to their forefathers, their families, and a strong community of faith.

 

 

Today, Smith Island sits at a crossroads in its long history. A number of socio-economic challenges caused a significant decrease in the Island’s full-time population over the past several decades. This led to reduced enrollment in the local school, vacancies in local housing, and a strain on the local economy.

 

 

Recently, however, there are signs of recovery with the population holding steady, new businesses emerging to support the growing tourist economy and increased home sales. Plans are on the table for shoreline protection and a new sewage treatment plant.

 

 

After Hurricane Sandy in 2012 the State offered to buy out property owners with storm-recovery funds, a move that would have effectively un-inhabited the island. Smith Islanders

made it clear that they did not intend to leave, so instead the State offered to fund the Visioning process. The community hired the Consensus Building Institute and Horsley Witten Group with state funding to design and facilitate a series of public meetings to gather input from homeowners, business leaders, watermen, and officials from all levels of government.

 

 

What first emerged from this Visioning process was a series of goals that capture the values and aspirations of Smith Islanders. These include:

 

 

  1. Sustain and grow the waterman culture and livelihood;

 

 

  1. Build a more diverse local economy that takes advantage of the tourism potential;

 

 

  1. Invest in resilient infrastructure;

 

 

  1. Develop a more reliable and sustainable transportation system; and

 

 

  1. Grow the year-round population.

 

 

The final Smith Island Vision Plan includes 23 concrete strategies designed to address the geographic, economic, and social issues facing this small island community, challenges that residents are ready to tackle in partnership with the state and county.

 

 

The Vision Plan Steering Committee has evolved into an Implementation Committee, and efforts are underway to boost tourism, revitalize the local school, upgrade the ferry system, and improve waterfronts and housing. John DelDuco, Smith Island resident and member of the Vision Steering Committee, called the Vision Plan a “roadmap to a prosperous future,” adding, “With Smith Island united behind this Plan, we are already starting to see progress toward some of the most important recommendations.”

 

 

Gretchen Maneval, part-time resident and the new Implementation Coordinator agreed. “These clear and actionable strategies developed through consensus will ensure sustainable change that benefits Smith Island well into the future.”

 

 

The Visioning process and development of the Vision Plan were funded by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Housing and Community Development, with in-kind support from Maryland Department of Planning and Somerset County. Kenneth Holt, secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, said, “Smith Island is a treasure in the Chesapeake, and DHCD is honored to play a role in continuing its viability as a thriving community.”

 

 

For more information, contact: Eddie Somers, President, Smith Island United esomers@verizon.net

Gary Pusey, Director of Planning, Somerset County gpusey@somersetmd.us

Christopher Cortina, MD DNR christopher.cortina@maryland.gov

Catherine Morris, Consensus Building Institute cmorris@cbuilding.org

Gretchen Maneval, Implementation Coordinator g_maneval@hotmail.com

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