Op-Ed: The Dumbing Down of Smart Growth will Fail to Preserve MD Landscape by Tom Horton

If you’re not yet worried about Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s abandonment of Smart Growth, you might want to read a new study on how Dumb Growth could cost Frederick County taxpayers some half a billion bucks.

First, a brief Smart Growth primer (which was once available on the Maryland Department of Planning’s website — until the website and department became a joke under Hogan): Smart Growth is the antithesis of sprawl, which is development outside areas planned and built for growth. Sprawl gobbles open space, increases air and water pollution, and costs more in new services than it ever offsets with taxes from new residents.

Sprawl, or Dumb Growth, can work politically, though, at least for a while. You just call it Economic Growth, or just Growth, which sounds fine to many people, especially bankers and developers and pavers and homebuilders — all of whom are good at electing candidates who’ll butter their bread.

That’s the way it worked in Frederick County for several years, until a more progressive slate of county officials took over in 2015 and began toting up the cost of “progress” under the former regime.

An August 2017 report done for Jan Gardner, the county executive, examined developments in the pipeline that will create 21,000 new housing units in the county, adding 50,000 new residents, 10,000 of them school age.

The fiscal bottom line: Taxpayers will fork out $340 million for roads and another $167 million for schools beyond anything that was planned or budgeted for, the county spokesman said.

A number of these developments also lock the county into agreements for up to 25 years, so that even if zoning gets stricter or developer fees are raised, the presently approved growth remains exempt.

The Frederick experience illustrates the perils of poorly planned residential growth, as well as the fallacy of believing it generates enough new revenue in property taxes to outweigh the demands it makes on government services.

This was one of the reasons that Maryland, under Gov. Parris Glendening in the 1990s, became a pioneer in pushing Smart Growth. Martin O’Malley, who preceded Hogan as governor, added teeth to Smart Growth in 2012 with a landmark law sharply limiting new development in areas that are predominantly farm and forest.
That law did not literally usurp traditional county power over land use; rather it dramatically curtailed, across rural landscapes, the use of septic tanks, on which sprawl development depends.

The law in recent years has begun to make a difference, and a major reason was the vigilance and “jawboning” of the Department of Planning, combined with the assistance it provided to counties in complying.

That threatens to unravel under Hogan, who announced in August to the Maryland Association of Counties that “Plan Maryland,” as O’Malley’s version of Smart Growth was called, “is off the books.” He was putting land use “back into the hands of local authorities,” Hogan said to applause.

The governor has also made it easier to develop using septic tanks again and given Cecil County a pass on complying with the 2012 anti-sprawl law.

He has not overtly tried to repeal the law itself, but in addition to Cecil, at least three more of Maryland’s 23 counties — Wicomico, Allegany and Queen Anne’s — have adopted plans or are pushing developments counter to the law.

But nothing is stopping any county whose citizens want to grow smartly. Charles County in Southern Maryland is a shining example after a six-year campaign to overturn a ruinous development plan.

As of 2016, Charles finalized a plan that stopped an estimated 339 major subdivisions on septic across 88,000 acres of open space. It also stopped about 123 new subdivisions in watersheds designated high water quality.

The new plan finally protects Mattawoman Creek, one of the Chesapeake’s best fish habitats; saves an estimated $2 billion on new roads; and cuts projected population growth in the next 30 years from 75,000 to 37,000.

Several Maryland counties have excellent compliance with the anti-sprawl law, while several others remain a mixed bag. For information on your county, contact 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide environmental land use group.

Rating Gov. Hogan environmentally is complicated by the reality that he is a tree hugger compared with national Republicans and the Trump administration, which set the lowest of bars.

He’s been good by any measure in important areas like Program Open Space, the state’s premier land preservation effort, and in aspects of air quality, such as greenhouse gas reductions. His transportation programs, though, remain far too road-improvement oriented, as opposed to pushing mass transit and mobility.

His environmental secretary, Ben Grumbles, gets high marks from environmentalists. His natural resources secretary, Mark Belton, might be good if nastier Hogan appointees would butt out of managing Bay fisheries.

The governor got a “needs improvement” grade on his 2017 report card from the Maryland League of Conservation voters; that’s the next to lowest of five ratings the group gives.

Hogan remains popular and has a good shot at re-election in 2018. But if the housing economy picks up, I fear a return to major sprawl development. In his re-election bid, the governor will face tougher questions about Smart Growth than he’s gotten so far.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Facebook: On the Edge by Al Sikes

My Facebook experience began in February of 2016 just ahead of the publication of my book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow. I was looking for promotional channels.

As I have watched Facebook’s evolving position as a major news source and for some, the only news source, what began for me as a publicity option has become an object of more interest.

Since at one point I was involved in communication’s regulation I get questions like, “should the Federal Communications Commission be regulating it?”; I always say no and note the comprehensive shield of the First Amendment. This is just one more instance of a commercial offering that will ultimately be shaped by the cultural force of its users.

Facebook now recognizes it is a magnet for bad actors. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted it is using artificial intelligence to screen for terrorist postings. Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management commented, “A beheading is easier to enforce than hate speech. Certain policies are easier to enforce than others.”

Brian Fishman, lead policy manager for counterterrorism at Facebook, commented: “One of the dangers there is that we’re dealing with a nimble set of organizations that frequently change the way that they behave……We need to keep training our machines so that they stay current.”

Facebook’s core business is in relationships. It is the star of a sub-set of businesses known as social media. So while machine learning can filter out the egregious, it will take talented people to create a relationship sensitive news service of any consequence. Politics today is not very social and is especially harmful when Russians trick the political tribes into becoming propaganda partners. The Russian elite recognized that Facebook was a news medium before Zuckerberg would acknowledge that fact.

Facebook has a market value of $531 billion and an annual cash flow over $16 billion. Financially it is positioned to be a powerful force. So where does Mark Zuckerberg direct his energies? Is he interested in what is a more complicated stage in his rapidly evolving business? He, after all, has the controlling interest in Facebook.

Zuckerberg is said to be interested in running for President. He has a far more consequential opportunity. Facebook can use artificial intelligence to discern shared concerns and interests that both cross and bridge ideological differences and use the findings to shape a news service that is truly “fair, balanced and unafraid.” But, and this is crucial; it will take probing and discerning reporters and editors, not just machines, to succeed.

New York to Des Moines

While on the subject of news let me betray my Midwestern sensibilities.

My first trip to New York City, where I eventually lived, was in 1970. It seemed like I was in the center of the news universe. I can recall the CBS building, the home of Walter Cronkite. I remember walking past the residence of Time magazine, an important source of my news at the time.
Today Time magazine, indeed all the Time Inc. magazines, will soon have a new owner, Meredith. It is headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa and its brands are a strong presence in the home and family categories.

Meredith’s headquarters building is adorned by a giant spade sculpture. Not a bad symbol. Advice to Mark Zuckerberg, good journalism requires a lot of spade work.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Op-Ed: Shore Residents should Save the Historic Tax Credit by Nicholas Redding and Katie Parks

Caught up in the current effort to reform the federal tax code is a critical program that has completed nearly $25 million worth of rehabilitated historic buildings on Maryland’s Eastern Shore since 2002. The Federal Historic Tax Credit (HTC) is a 20% credit on the cost of rehabilitating a historic building and is a powerful and efficient tool for revitalizing our nation’s small towns and cities.

For every $1 invested by the federal government, the program attracts nearly $4 in private investment. Better yet, for every $1 in credits, the program returns $1.20 to the federal treasury – actually yielding a profit for the government. The results have been stunning and have changed the outlook for many communities.

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore the program has a long history of revitalizing communities while also saving important historic buildings. Since 2002, in Easton alone the program has incentivized the rehabilitation of $10 million worth of buildings – from main street shops to former industrial buildings. A perfect example is the McCord Laundry facility, home to the Eastern Shore Conservation Center – a mixed-use campus of nonprofit organizations, businesses, and apartments. In Cambridge, the program is supporting the rebirth of Race Street, providing critical equity to make the rehabilitation of the Hearn Hardware Building a reality. The formerly vacant and crumbling building will now host market rate apartments and first floor retail space; yet another positive outcome thanks to the Historic Tax Credit.

Elsewhere in Cambridge, the Historic Tax Credit is incentivizing an ambitious and potentially catalytic project that will convert the vacant Phillips Packing Co.’s Factory F into a hub of commerce, industry, and education. Without the Historic Tax Credit and the New Market Tax Credit program, which is also seriously threatened, tackling difficult projects like this in rural communities would not be possible.
Repeal of the Historic Tax Credit should be of grave concern for anyone who cares about the future of the Eastern Shore’s charming small towns and cities. Reuse of historic buildings will plummet and investment in downtowns will become increasingly cost prohibitive. In turn, property values will sink and local coffers will suffer as property tax revenue plummets. New construction will move to the fringes of communities – resulting in more sprawl and the subsequent loss of farmland. Fortunately, this is a future we can avoid.

Organizations and municipalities all across the state and the Shore are calling on Congress to save the Historic Tax Credit. It’s also a rare opportunity for bipartisan agreement – it was a favorite program of President Ronald Reagan and has been championed by Republican and Democratic leaders alike in this latest tax reform debate. Eastern Shore residents should reach out to Congressman Harris and let him know they support preservation of our historic properties and investment in our towns.

Nicholas Redding & Katie Parks

Nicholas Redding is the Executive Director of Preservation Maryland, the nation’s second oldest statewide preservation organization.Twitter: @PreservationMD. Katie Parks is the Director of Conservation at the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, a land conservation and community development non-profit organization. Twitter: @EShoreLandC

Out and About (Sort of): Economic Fallout from Climate Change by Howard Freedlander

Until I recently read a white paper concerning local climate adaptation, I simply didn’t focus on the financial cost of ignoring the effects of climate change on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It’s downright eye-opening—unless you choose to look the other way and believe that the current cycle is just an inconvenient phase.

My source is a clearly written and well-researched document entitled Prioritizing Local Climate Adaptation through Regional Collaboration on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, prepared for the Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Partnership by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC). Though I am a board member, the white paper is readily available on the ESLC website.

The facts are alarming. Scientists project sea level rise in the Chesapeake region of 2.1 feet by 2050 and 3.7 to 5.7 feet later in the 21st century. “Nuisance flooding” created by chronic tides affects large portions of Dorchester County, the causeway in Oxford and waterfront in Chestertown. The two feet of sea level rise forecast for 2050 will flood more than 33,000 acres or 2.9% of land across the mid-and-upper Eastern Shore. Tropical storms and hurricanes will become increasingly more “destructive when their storm surge is augmented by sea level rise,” according to the white paper.

More facts are startling. From the 1980s to the 2000s, as compared to the 1960s and 1970s, the number of “extreme heat events” doubled during this period. Scientists project a rise of 4-6 degrees Fahrenheit later in the 21st century. Why does this matter? Days with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit will range from 60-90, up from an average of 30 days during the late 20th century. Annual days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit will increase from just a handful to 10-25 days per year.

An economic perspective of these climatic changes further substantiates cause for concern and the crying need to adapt.

Excessive heat is particularly dangerous for low-income persons unable to escape the heat for several days. Emergencies and consequent health crises will exact higher costs for residents, emergency services, hospitals and health departments. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in older buildings will be inadequate, requiring maintenance and upgrades to roadways, buildings, and infrastructure; local governments thus will face serious financial costs.

Having experienced a 5-10 percent increase in annual rainfall over the past 60 years, with precipitation expected to increase 10-20 percent above the average amounts experienced at the end of the 20th century, the Eastern Shore will confront “intense downpours that deliver more rain in a shorter time period.” It’s reasonable to project that stormwater systems, roads, infrastructure, and property will become inundated. Currently, inadequate stormwater systems will have to be replaced. Sooner, rather than later.

Another flash point are droughts. “As rainfall becomes concentrated in more intense downpours, the region will also see longer dry periods between precipitation.” Longer droughts will become likelier. The agricultural economy will experience lower crop yields, probable crop failures and costs associated to switching to drought-resistant crops.

According to the white paper cited at the outset, “In the long term, choosing not to prepare for climate change will impose rising financial costs on communities…the report (produced in 2008 by the University of Maryland) cites tourism, agriculture, and health—all critical to the Eastern Shore’s prosperity—as sectors that are expected to suffer if attention is not given to climate adaptation and resilience.”

Adaptation and resilience are the words of choice for professionals intent on forestalling calamity.

For example, local governments can spend money now to upgrade infrastructure, such as stormwater systems, to handle the inevitable onslaught of water created by a sudden surge of rainfall.

From a planning standpoint, local governments can impose higher “freeboard” requirements—that is, requiring an increase in the height of the first floor to generate greater safety for homes and buildings and preclude flood-water damage to a structure, its occupants, and contents. Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties all have requirements in their floodplain ordinances of two feet of freeboard. Cambridge, Oxford and St. Michaels also have the two-foot requirement. Chestertown has a one-foot requirement.

Finally, the white paper calls for policy changes that would “encourage more resilient building codes and practices for siting and construction…greater risk reduction can be realized by directing the new private development and public investment of less flood-prone areas of the community.”
The white paper represents a collaborative effort by seven counties, two cities (Oxford and Cambridge), state agencies, academic institutions and non-profit organizations. I applaud this regional approach to share data and develop processes and recommendations to ensure that the Eastern Shore can respond effectively to climate change.

I mentioned viewing the need for climatic adaptation from an economic perspective. I am not ignoring the significant impact on humans of sea level rise, more frequent and intense rainfall occurrences and increasingly extreme heat days. The cost in dollars and lives is inestimable.

Inaction is not a thoughtful option.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

 

 

 

Dropping The Bat by George Merrill

I killed a bat, once. I never felt right about it. It was wrong, so unnecessary, so driven. I discovered for myself how quickly fear incites violence.

Bats are mammals, warm blooded and hairy like dogs and cats. Their wings, fashioned of thin-skinned membrane are frequently translucent. Their skeletons are shaped remarkably like humans, except that their knees bend the wrong way, like herons. Bats see, but find their way about more effectively by emitting and receiving sound waves, not unlike sonar. Like musicians and whales, bats negotiate their world by sound. But unlike musicians and whales, bats are irrationally feared.

“Liminal,” Professor Gary McCracken at the University of Tennessee, suggests of these little creatures, attempting to explain why bats give so many of us the willies: “They do not fit into people’s view of the normal scheme of things. They tend to be in between.” The human mind remains uneasy with ambiguity.
Not everyone finds bats creepy. The Chinese saw bats as symbols of good luck and bat images regularly appear in their tapestries and rugs. The Navajo Indians venerated bats as mentors during the long night hours, associating bats with their deity, the ‘Talking God.’ However, enjoying status hasn’t necessarily been an enviable estate for some bats. The Chamorro peoples of Guam, while honoring bats at special ceremonies, express gratitude for their contribution to Chamorro culture by eating them. Bats, as a result, have grown scarce in the Northern Marianas; the Chamorro’s have taken to importing bats. Being without honor in ones own land can sometimes be a blessing.

I once saw a moving picture of a bat, a Lyle’s flying fox, one of the larger bats. The photographer had taken the picture as the bat flew past a strong light, which lighted the creature the way sunlight illuminates leaves. The light set the bat’s torso in sharp relief with stunning clarity. I could see that the bat looked just like a human being, head high, arms reaching out sideways, legs extended backwards. The entire body looked woven together by the translucent wing membrane surrounding its body, which from the light behind it, shone like a penumbra, a glowing halo. The bat looked like Jesus on the cross, ascending bodily to heaven, and going to glory.

One November evening my wife, Jo, and I were sitting reading in the living room. A bat swooped over our heads; making two more passes before it went out into the hallway and out of sight. In about five minutes it returned, making a second sweep, as if he’d forgotten something, and then was gone.

The thought of his return frightened me. I had resolved earlier, that should the bat reappear again in the house, I’d swat him with the squash racket. With a twist of the wrist, I couldn’t miss.

I went to the closet, took a racket and waited for the bat to appear again from the hallway. By then my heart was pounding; the racket shook slightly in my hand. I couldn’t help myself now; I was committed. I had a passing sense that I was possessed with fear, and behaving like a madman.

The bat soon returned to the living room. I was waiting, racket in hand. A second bat appeared. They flew opposite courses around the living room. Ducking and feinting as if the bats were after me, I swung wildly, but hit nothing. I disturbed the tranquil air.

I stopped for a moment and steeled myself against an impulse to run, long enough to imagine the bats as squash balls; I turned my fear into sport. And as one bat began passing slightly over my head, I aimed deliberately and swung the racket firmly, snapping my wrist at the same time. The racket struck the bat full bore with a sickening spongy ‘whump.’ The bat flew against the wall, and with tiny high-pitched squeaks fell to the floor on its back. The bat twitched, its chest heaved and one outstretched wing lay motionless.

I felt triumphant at first. I watched the bat on the floor. His eyes were large, open as though he were surprised, and wondering. He had a pug face covered with soft brown hair; the bat looked like a miniature pup. One wing was broken asunder, the other drawn next to him as if he had tried vainly to protect himself from injury; hearing the sound of the racket approaching at terrible speed, he could do nothing to avoid it. I was sure for a moment that he was looking at me, and asking me, “Why?” The tiny chest rose and fell for a minute or so and suddenly ceased moving. His world his ended with a ‘whump.”

My wife, Jo was standing next to me. She had suggested earlier that we open a couple of windows and following the drafts the bats would leave on their own accord. Of course she was right but by then I was possessed. For many men, violence arrives too quickly on the heels of fear. Jo looked at me the way women often look at the men they love when their men do things they don’t understand, things which men feel compelled to do–driven kind of things–and her eyes looked moist, gentle and terribly sad.

I felt a faint wave of nausea; I wanted to run and to hide, to avert Jo’s eyes and never see the bat again but as I turned my head, near the tip of the bat’s broken wing bone, I saw four tiny fingers and a thumb. The bat possessed hands, one of which lay open, as if he were waiting for me to reach out and take hold of it.

Jo walked across the room to open windows.

I felt hollow, empty.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

Out and About (Sort of): Two Local Events are Fulfilling by Howard Freedlander

As Thanksgiving approaches, offering peace and tranquility prior to the madness of the high-pressured build-up to Christmas, I savor a time of year characterized by cooler weather and festive moods. The gift-buying crush remains a constant burden.

Aware that I might summon a “bag Humbug” reaction to my increasingly negative attitude to the well-documented commercialization of a rather sacred Christian holiday, I will quickly pivot to a more optimistic tone. Perhaps the omnipresent holiday music—which I love—and the incessant TV commercials selling Christmas consumption drown out the insane shootings, the political mess, and mayhem in Washington and worldwide terrorism.

Just think about it: we can escape into buying, buying and more buying. And it’s legal and maybe soothing to some.

Okay. It’s time for cheerfulness.

Last week, my wife and I partook of a “soft opening” at Mason’s Redux on Harrison Street in Easton. A few months ago, I interviewed the proprietors, Chance Negri and Jeffery Parker, along with Jutta Sayles, also an owner, about their plans to resurrect a beloved restaurant once operated by the Mason family. Like so many former devotees of Mason’s, I looked forward to the filling of a vacuum created by a former owner of the property; Mason’s failed to exist, replaced by a chop house that gained no traction and closed.

I found myself excited by the much-awaited opening of Mason’s Redux. A new chapter was being written. A hometown favorite was finding a new, though different future. A hole on Harrison Street would be filled.

I was not disappointed. In fact, I felt thrilled to participate in a new venture in an updated venue with delightful food offerings.

The new Mason’s has enlivened the food landscape in Easton. It’s added a spark on Harrison Street. Negri and Parker, supported by Sayles, have created a venue that I suspect will become increasingly popular. The kinks from the two soft opening nights will become less important.

After speaking three times with Negri following our wonderful evening, I savored his enthusiasm, his purposefulness to create a superb dining experience. He’s determined to produce top-quality food and provide excellent service. The response from hundreds of diners has been overwhelming to Negri, Parker, and Sayles.

My wife and I joined other repeat customers for Sunday night dinner. We hardly ever dine out on Sunday evening.

Another opening happened in Easton on Saturday night with the first of two performances of “Modern Warrior Live,” about which I wrote a few months ago. This unusual, powerful musical drama tells a story about a young veteran of three tours as an infantryman in Afghanistan and his sometimes tortuous effort to acclimate himself to a civilian world devoid of a constant struggle to stay alive and protect your buddies. He confronted the death of fellow soldiers and the collapse of personal relationships back home.

Poling’s story is poignant. The message is broader than his wartime and civilian experiences. For me, the underlying theme is the difficulty of melding military and civilian sensitivities in such a way that returning veterans and the families, friends, and co-workers that provide the welcoming mat understand the tension that can divide the two parties.

The music produced by Dominic Farinacci, a world-class trumpet player, three singers and instrumentalists beautifully and strikingly enhanced the power and pungency of Poling’s autobiographical story.

Sitting in the Avalon Theatre, I found myself transfixed by the message and music. Farinacci’s trumpet sang with its variations of somber and upbeat sounds. Those accompanying him on the piano, string instruments, and drums provided a magnificent blend of spellbinding music.

And the three singers provided an extension of Poling’s story, probing the depths of his utterly frank talk of deadly combat action, searing introspection about war and family, despair prompted by a complex re-entry into the civilian world and, finally, the self-satisfaction of using the past to chart an optimistic future.

As I knew from speaking recently with Farinacci and Poling, the final takeaway from the show was that veterans are not damaged goods unable to adapt to lives without combat and intense bonding. Wartime experience can and does lay a foundation for personal growth and achievement—but not without a struggle at times.

It would have been difficult, if not impossible to walk away from this performance without absorbing its celebration of veterans and their intense challenges back home.

Without the support of Richard Marks and Al Sikes, two community leaders are known for their commitment not only to “Modern Warrior Live,” but also to other local activities, this unusual music drama would have bypassed Easton on its way to New York.

I began by talking about Thanksgiving, a holiday that summons good food and good chair—and no gifts. Others share my angst about the oncoming onslaught of ceaseless Christmas promotion. The successful opening of Mason’s Redux and the exceptional performance of “Modern Warrior Redux” have provided a pleasant prelude to my favorite holiday.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

In Praise of Oysters by George Merrill

Oysters at Thanksgiving are a tradition on the Shore.

However, before I lived on the Shore it was in1960 that I first ate oysters. It was in New Orleans at Galatoir’s restaurant. I had them on the half shell and then ordered Oysters Rockefeller. I was hooked for life.

Every New Years Day since I prepare Oysters Rockefeller for family and friends. Even those who normally think of oysters as ‘yucky’ will allow that as a Rockefeller, an oyster not only becomes a class act, but an epicurean delight. I believe it’s the bacon and Spice Pariesienne that’s used which lends this dish its unique taste. Who doesn’t like bacon? In any case, preparing them is a ritual act like performing a liturgical rite. Presenting the oysters ceremoniously to guests earns the chef deep reverence. Fresh oysters, dressed with select ingredients and steaming in the rock salt beds on which they have been baked, there’s nothing quite like Oysters Rockefeller.

For me, oysters have been a family affair. The paternal side of my family had been involved in New York and Staten Island’s prolific oyster trade for over 250 years. An oyster 200,000,000 years old would look about the same as those we see today in the Chesapeake Bay or like the one’s my great-grandfather harvested in Raritan Bay. There aren’t many creatures about which we can say that, although the horseshoe crab is a close contender.

Oysters’ ability to survive and not change greatly over time is daunting considering the assaults they’ve suffered from man and beast alike, pollution and starfish. They work at their survival by maintaining a low profile, staying stuck-in-the-mud, having a thick shell and a hard edge. They also have some exotic habits.

If there is a preponderance of females among oysters, some females may simply become males in order to level the playing field – or vice versa. Necessity, the mother of invention, illustrates in this case how mothers can become fathers as required. Actually this same phenomenon frequents our own day as divorce becomes more common and mom winds up being both mother and father. For oysters, however, it’s an issue of DNA and not dereliction of duty that initiates the transformation.

Oysters are comfortable in a transgender world although I imagine courting could be challenging. An amorous oyster making his advances may not get what he bargained for. She might switch leaving him with some soul searching about same sex relationships.

To keep their enemies away, oysters house themselves in the most disreputable looking shells: misshapen, gnarled, uneven and rough to touch. Their shells can inflict a nasty cut. They’re covered with muck. I’ve seen resident barnacles and little red worms burrowing here and there on their shells – enough to put you off. The oyster’s sleight of hand is to appear ugly, but only to the uninitiated. Starfish have been onto them for ages. They’re more interested in an oyster’s inner life. They see beyond appearances.

The ramshackle exterior belies the oyster’s smooth interior living space. Within, the oyster inhabits a miniature palace, a salon, and elegantly glazed and satin smooth. The pearl-like patina of its walls is accented with occasional splashes of blue. The interior forms a seamless sanctuary where the oyster rests safely ensconced as cozily as though it were royalty reclining between pillows of silk.

Oysters are unique in their ability to inspire both revulsion and admiration. Like Quasimodo in the Hunch back of Notre Dame, their malformed bodies fascinate and endear many to them. In the same way, I find oyster shells beautiful. Native Americans used the shells – sans oyster meat – as currency. Making change may have created problems or sales were simply rounded off to the closest shell.

I live on a creek. In a sad annual ritual, in late winter, a waterman walks the shoreline along the low water mark. It’s an odd sight. He walks slowly in search of oysters that tongers may have missed. He tows a small dinghy behind him and when I see him he seems a little like a man walking a dog. He may stop, talk on his cell phone for a few minutes and continue his search. Finding an oyster he picks it up by hand throws it in the dingy and moves on. It’s sad because I take this to mean that oyster populations are diminishing in the Bay. They were once so abundant in New York Harbor during the era of early Dutch settlers, that one resident wrote how oysters were so prolific one could about walk across them on the waters between Governors Island and lower Manhattan,

My admiration for oysters goes far beyond my stomach or my eyes. It’s about holding in my hand the descendant of a prehistoric creature whose family inhabited the earth as life itself was just beginning to sort itself out. They were there shortly after the dawn of being. If oysters had eyes to see and tongues to speak they could tell us about how this marvel we call creation began its long trek. They would be witnesses to how life struggled from the sea to survive on land, to take wings and fly, to develop legs to walk, thumbs to hold, and minds to remember the past and to imagine a future.

If oysters only talked, imagine the stories they could tell us.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

Democracy on the Cliff’s Edge by Al Sikes

We are in the center of the bulls-eye. Micro-targeting, shaped by the details we reveal, comes full circle in the offers we receive.

Micro-targeting is also a favored tool of the politicians and advocacy organizations. The National Rifle Association, much in the news these days, can with great specificity push the hot buttons of its members right down to the household level. And, when they decide to target a political candidate they don’t confuse their member with any extraneous information like his/her position on the deficit, or foreign policy or anything other than a hyped emotional expression used to provoke not inform.

Conversely, significant parts of the public are content with broad political narratives that too often drive tribal clustering.

Bernie Sanders said that Hillary Clinton was a captive of Wall Street and even though a Socialist from Vermont might well have beaten her on a level playing field. Imagine the Democratic Party manipulating delegate selection to protect the favorite candidate of Goldman Sachs.

Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and “make America great again.” The swamp was made up of, well almost everybody who worked in Washington. So in the swamp category was John McCain and others of independent views and dispositions. And making America great, well who knew what that meant. Trump careened around the issues like a pig on ice except he let everybody know that Mexico would build a wall a few feet from its boundary line and that every trade agreement was a disaster. Our President, sensing emotional vulnerability, speaks only in hyperbole. So while those who sell products and positions construct increasingly specific profiles, we are all too prone to overlook the detail.

America is at great risk if lack of discernment among candidates, issue positions and the like are dealt with at an emotional level while those who sell to us proceed with amoral marketing pitches.
Democracy works when people are well informed and at least intuitively discerning. Otherwise, it doesn’t, and overtime democratic nations that are shaped by message makers using our physical and psychological profiles will be fatally weakened unless we are to assume that the marketing class is patriotically constructive.
We should know as much about the Clintons or Trumps or Sanders or Romneys as they and their marketers know about us. A logical question is how. How can we live our lives successfully and still spend significant time learning about political candidates? The answer is we cannot.

Over the centuries we have had a surrogate—journalists. Our forefathers even gave the journalists a series of protections including freedom of the press to make sure they were able to play that role well.

In recent decades what we call the press (providers of news regardless of its format) has too often failed us. Some are guided by marketing analyses that tell them which markets (points of view) are underserved. What is now called the mainstream press did such a poor job balancing their coverage that it opened up counter-programming opportunities for conservative outlets like Fox and talk show ones like Rush Limbaugh.

Those on the left have tried to repeat those successes but found that many on the left feel well served by the mainstream media. Too bad. America needs true journalistic balance produced by networks that employ superior production values. No longer will boring news coverage, regardless of accuracy and balance, survive.

But true balance is only recognized by the actively curious. If we yield to micro-targeting, while skating through life, we will clearly be on thin ice.

The icons of journalistic expression are celebrated in a Washington-based museum called the Newseum. I was there in its opening week and was quite impressed. But, the Newseum is operating at a serious deficit and is at risk of being closed. Perhaps it is no wonder when polls find confidence in America’s news media disturbingly small and traditional media doesn’t generate enough cash flow to keep its own museum open.

Inevitably industries celebrate the past. What will the news media celebrate in 2050? If they are not celebrating a dramatic turnaround in confidence, our nation itself will not have much to celebrate. We need curious citizens served by balanced journalism; without it, our constitutional guarantee of free speech will be principally used to protect the outrageous.

 

Opinion: Tangier Island needs Help no Matter how you Define its Woes by Tom Horton

When I began a documentary film this year about climate change and the Chesapeake, I knew that even though local residents were affected by it, I’d never be able to record most of them talking about sea level rise.

They know what they see. And around Dorchester — Maryland’s lowest-lying county and the focus of our film — residents see erosion of the shoreline, high tides that seem to come more often and forests dying along the marsh edges.

It’s easy to talk past one another, we who are comfortable with the lingo and concepts of climate science, and those who are not — even while all talking about the same thing.

This was on my mind recently when my friend, James “Ooker” Eskridge, the mayor of Tangier Island, VA, appeared on a CNN Town Hall with former Vice President Al Gore, one of the world’s foremost proponents of how humans are warming the planet.

Eskridge, who’s not convinced that this is really happening, was invited on the cable TV show because of a phone call he got earlier this summer that brought him in early from fishing his crab pots.

The caller was President Donald Trump. He’d heard about Tangier’s plight: battered by erosion that will soon spell its demise if it can’t find an estimated $25 million to $30 million to bulwark its Bay shore with rock. He’d also heard that the island of some 400 residents, with a culture harking back to 17th century England, had voted nearly 90 percent for him last November.

Ooker heard Gore out, but maintained: “I’ve lived there 65 years and I just don’t see it (sea level rise).”

I talked about the disjunct between the two men with Michael Scott, a colleague at Salisbury University and a professor of geography whose specialty is environmental hazards.

He and I are both in Gore’s camp on climate; but Scott has as good a feel as any scientist I know for explaining the nuances and complexities of such global, long-term phenomena at the level of the average citizen.

“I was upset that CNN portrayed (Eskridge) as this sort of pro-Trump nut job,” Scott said. Eskridge is not wrong at all when he says Tangier’s problem is erosion, the professor said, adding that it’s happening very quickly and is very noticeable.

“But there are really two processes going on and they are not separate,” Scott added.

The second process he refers to is sea level rise, propelled by a warmer climate that is melting glaciers. That’s exacerbated by land around the Bay sinking back to its original contours after being pushed upward by the glaciers that extended into Pennsylvania during the last Ice Age.

Add to that the thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm and the potential slowing of the Gulf Stream that could back up more seawater in the Chesapeake.

Rising sea levels make erosion worse. But Scott’s not at all surprised that Tangier’s mayor said that he “didn’t see it (sea level rise).”

Sea level rise at this point, unlike erosion, “is happening very slowly,” coming up mere inches throughout Eskridge’s lifetime on the Chesapeake.

“It’s been slight enough up to now that it’s actually very difficult to measure unless you’re taking very precise scientific measurements,” Scott said.

But the overwhelming scientific consensus, he continued, is that the Earth’s temperatures have reached the point where a measurable acceleration in sea level is under way. In the Bay, it will add 2 feet or more to everyday tides by around 2050.

The forecasts for 2100 are less certain because we can’t tell how fast the massive ice sheets of Antarctica will melt. But estimates foresee everyday tides 5.5 feet above present levels, “and that’s probably on the low end . . . every time we look at it, it seems our estimates are too low,” Scott said.

A couple wrinkles disguise the coming impact further, he said.

First, it is quite possible for waters locally to shallow up as seas rise. In our filming, we’ve found examples of this in Dorchester County. The sediment eroding from shorelines and disintegrating marshes has to go somewhere, and it may fill in channels and other places where currents carry it.

The larger complication, Scott said, “is that sea level rise is not linear.” In other words, it isn’t going to happen steadily, inch by inch, over the years. That would be relatively easy to predict and respond to.

Unfortunately, the path to 2, 3, 5 or more feet of daily tide around the Bay is going to resemble a curve that steepens as average high tide levels rise.

“The trouble with an increasing curve is that for a while, things will seem as if they’re OK, but then the rate’s going to really increase and you’re going to lose the ability to adjust to it,” Scott said.

Helping localities around the Chesapeake adjust is where Scott’s passion lies; and he said we’re still at a point on the curve where we can act reasonably and cost-effectively.

“This (Delmarva) Peninsula is very precious to me and to my family . . . we want to preserve it for our children and we can do that if we are honest with what’s happening and with how we can try to respond,” he said.

He finds most people don’t care too much about why the tides and the erosion are getting worse, or about the politics of climate change.

“They want to know what is going to happen to them and what they can do about it,” Scott said. For many, the real threat won’t come in their lifetimes, and they aren’t likely to pay tens of thousands of dollars to jack up their houses.

The key he said, is to honestly acknowledge the threat and install public policies that over time guide “the way that development takes place, rearrange the way people build their homes, the way roads are maintained.

“And as we lose marshes we are going to need spaces on the landward edge for them to move into. . . . We’re going to need to buy the development rights to such places from the people who own them now . . . a very appropriate response.”

In low-lying places like Dorchester County, he said he thinks that “if we can get a hold of this in the next five to seven years, we have time to fix it that way. If we wait, then we will be in crisis mode, and things are going to happen in a very shocking and upsetting way.”

As for Tangier Island, it won’t make much difference now whether Mayor Eskridge and his townspeople vote yea or nay on closing coal-fired plants to reduce the long-term buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Tangier needs rock, pretty soon, and no change in energy policies is going to change that.

Even the best seawall at Tangier is not the same as a dike, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and realistically isn’t going to happen. Even less likely are Trump’s assurances to Eskridge that his island would persist for “hundreds more years.”

But a seawall would buy time for another generation or two of Tangier residents to continue the island’s unique culture and heritage, time enough for hundreds of thousands of us to visit and enjoy that — a reasonable investment in my opinion.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Out and About (Sort of): Dining in a Kitchen – Just Right by Howard Freedlander

 

Amid all the wonderful restaurants in our area, I had a particularly unusual and tasteful experience two weeks ago. It happened in a kitchen, albeit a commercial one.

For years my wife and I have enjoyed the culinary delights produced by our favorite caterer, Blue Heron Catering. The owner, Susan Joy, and her hard-working staff seem almost like family to us. Mind you; our needs are simple. Nonetheless, Susan and her crew unfailingly proffer terrific food, surpassed only by their service and friendliness.

Blue Heron Catering has been an integral part of memorable family occasions, including a milestone birthday, a recent retirement and Thanksgiving.

At this point, I will say only that this column is not intended as an advertisement, just a description of the first-time event for me. A food critic I am not.

My wife and I hosted a kitchen party at Blue Heron Catering, which recently moved to a strip shopping center on Dover Road. Most folks probably know this nondescript spot by its longtime tenant, Domino’s Pizza. It once housed a Sherwin-Williams Paint Store. And it nearly adjoins Rails to Trails.

No commercial kitchen party is worth its name without a demonstration. That’s exactly what the affable and talented Susan Joy did, as she explained how she prepared the main course, Beef Wellington. Some “foodies” among our guests peppered (excuse the pun) with questions about ingredients and other details concerning preparation. She handled all queries and comments in her typically calm, easygoing manner.

Lest I forget, not only did this kitchen dinner party provide a different and appealing venue, it meant that at its completion we had no responsibility for clean-up. That result was downright pleasant.

A very basic eater, who rarely savors in particularly critical detail his food, I found it wonderfully tasty and fulfilling. My hunger was easily satisfied. Our guests seemed pleased too.

On a personal level, I have long considered pigs in a blanket my very most favorite hors-d’oeuvre. Along the way, I’ve discovered that others with far more sophisticated and discerning tastes than mine also crave this rather basic food offering.

According to Wikipedia, the source of voluminous information in our modern world, pigs in a blanket (hot dogs wrapped in bread) are served not only in the United States but also in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Russia, Canada, and Japan. In the United Kingdom (UK), “pigs in blankets” are small sausages wrapped in bacon, “a traditional accompaniment to roast turkey in a Christmas dinner.” They often are followed by “devils on horseback,” an appetizer of prunes wrapped in bacon.

Were I in the UK, I would forswear the “devils on horseback.”

So, why am I expending my words and your attention on this personal delicacy?

Because Susan Joy served pigs in a blanket at our kitchen party. She did so to please me, though she and my wife had far loftier options on their minds.

Sitting around a square table for 12 people, our guests seem enthralled not only by the unusual venue but also by the quality of  Blue Heron Catering food. As mentioned, some of these folks truly appreciate good food and feel comfortable as chefs in their own kitchens. They ate admiringly.

As noted at the outset, our community offers many delightful eateries, each with its own personality and appealing dining experiences. For us and our guests, a dinner party at a commercial kitchen operated by a professional and gracious chef in an unremarkable shopping center was simply terrific.

Thank you, Susan Joy, for the pigs in a blanket.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.