Death last Tuesday night of Russell Brinsfield, 76, from complications following minor surgery has robbed the Eastern Shore of an exceptional leader in land use and sound agricultural practices. He had battled Parkinson’s Disease for several years.
He led the Harry R. Hughes Maryland Agri-Ecology Center as founding director or 16 years, and Wye Research and Education Center, both in Queenstown, for 34 years.
He was mayor for 22 years of Vienna in Dorchester County, where he also owned a 150-acre farm.
He also held bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Maryland in agricultural engineering.
And Brinsfield was a co- founder and first president of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC). He saw the urgent need to preserve land and farms on the Eastern Shore and prevent sprawl and the loss of valuable open space and farmland.
He was a multi-faceted man whose many accomplishments were hidden behind a soft-spoken, low-key persona. He was driven and committed in a likable way. While he was rooted in Dorchester County, he also was obsessed with data and progress in protecting the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
I first met Brinsfield when I served as a deputy state treasurer and liaison to the powerful Board of Public Works. He sometimes would attend in his role as mayor of Vienna, usually on a Program Open Space matter. When Comptroller William Donald Schaefer would see him in the audience, he would summon Brinsfield to the lectern, call him the best mayor in Maryland and bless whatever project he was advocating.
Brinsfield accepted Schaefer’s support in his typically modest way, his Dorchester County dialect clearly audible. If I recall correctly, Schaefer would thank Brinsfield for a cake or pie that he brought him. Brinsfield knew how to appeal to the former Baltimore mayor’s and former governor’s sweet tooth and taste for flattery.
I believe that other folks in the Governor’s Reception Room joked among themselves about asking the Vienna mayor to advocate for them to avoid the ire from the sometime cantankerous state comptroller.
Also during my tenure as a deputy treasurer, I recall a study assembled by the Maryland Department of Planning and the Maryland Agro-Ecology Center calling for, and justifying agricultural downzoning. It was highly controversial among the state’s farmers, advocating for the diminution of “development rights.” Farmers feared that the value of their properties would decrease, because proposed zoning changes would forbid two-acre lots in favor of 20-to-50-acre lots.
The study showed that the property values did not drop. In many cases, sprawl was kept at bay.
Russ Brinsfield did not fear controversy or disagreement when it concerned the preservation of farmland so important to the quality of rural life on the Eastern Shore and the precious health of the Chesapeake Bay. He didn’t seek discord, nor did he avoid it.
As an ESLC board member, I have learned about his invaluable role in establishing this well-regarded land trust 30 years ago. He mentored Rob Etgen, the founding executive director and president, introducing him to farmers and potential donors.
Like so many other things he did, Brinsfield worked quietly and effectively to create an organization that has preserved more than 65,000 acres in an area that encompasses Cecil, Kent, Caroline, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Dorchester counties. Etgen is a well-acclaimed land trust leader and advocate.
He was a gentleman, a scientist, a farmer, a politician and civic leader. He was a friend and counselor to many. He eschewed fanfare.
Russ Brinsfield left an indelible mark on his beloved Eastern Shore. We should feel grateful to this Shoreman.
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.