Editor’s note. The following St. Michaels residents asked the Talbot Spy to publish their letters in response to an article in a community newsletter called The Lantern representing the St. Michaels Action Committee (SMAC) regarding a new town hall project.
Don’t miss the latest! You can subscribe to The Talbot Spy‘s free Daily Intelligence Report here.
The Lantern from November, 2019
Views of David Braly
My spouse and I had dinner with some of our neighbors this past Sunday, and the subject of “The Lantern”, which we all had received and read, was discussed. I will say at the outset that everyone expressed support of the Town Commission’s decision to move forward with a new town hall on the Fremont Street site, and that we believe consolidation of important city services on this street will benefit the town and all the citizens it serves. We were equally in favor of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum having the opportunity to acquire the adjacent town property on Mill Street to further enhance its world-class mission and reputation, which is a credit to our community, benefiting us immensely.
I was impressed with the consideration and thoroughness with which the proposed new town hall was presented by the design team this past spring. And, by the open and forthright Q & A period that followed it. I am not 100% sold on the building’s aesthetic, but I believe it has been well thought out functionally and well planned to serve our community now and in the future. Further, it will complete an arrangement of civic services and institutions already in place: police station, library, town parking, community center, and bring substantial improvement to a too-often overlooked part of town.
Admittedly less impressive is the adjusted cost estimate for the project; a change from $342 p.s.f. to $554 p.s.f. However, I think some of this is due to the increased square footage requiring multi-floor construction, the need for stairs and elevator, and other building systems and equipment. Some is due to providing state of the art technology, and more durable, low-maintenance materials—all of which will serve the town for years to come. Add to this the increase in construction costs and administration since the project’s conception, and it is not hard to reconcile the cost increase. Institutional construction like this is an investment in the future, and must take into account future needs; not simply address present-day ones. I would like to see if this estimate can be trimmed, but I do not think it is too far out of line for this area of the country.
You may have a point concerning the fairness of the site analysis process, though it seems that you are saying both sites are undesirable—but without specifically saying why the Fremont site is so. In my experience as a design professional, it is not generally a good idea to build on a site prone to flooding, or one that contains sensitive underground infrastructure; the cost of special foundation work, such as caisson and grade beam, is higher than average. In addition, a pumping and drainage system might be required. Negotiating the buried sewer pipes to avoid damage and interruption of performance, and to enable repair and replacement adds to the cost. If, as you suggest, the police station could be moved to the Mill Street site, a considerable and unnecessary expense would be incurred.
None of these obstacles exist on the Fremont Street site, yet you deem it “unsafe.” Why?
Putting these practical and quantifiable aspects aside, I want to address a more troubling aspect of your document. Despite a trend toward incivility in this country, I think most people still take a dim view of anonymity in public affairs—especially in a small town, where everyone knows everybody and their business. Attacking some unnamed public officials is to attack them all; sowing doubt and discord among those who elected them. Inferring that some public officials are acting improperly “behind the scenes”, and failing to make a proper public complaint, is irresponsible—so is making assertions and using hyperbolic expressions without backing them up with facts or evidence. Hiding behind a seemingly benign committee name, while making such accusations, makes a mockery of the transparency you say you desire and which we all deserve.
A true lantern sheds light all around, not just in one direction.
David K. Braly
St. Michaels, MD
Views of Bradley Hower
I received your copy of The Lantern and have a couple of observations.
If cost were a genuine concern, SMAC would not have filed a frivolous lawsuit against the town, forcing the town to spend taxpayer funds defending itself.
If transparency were a genuine concern, you would sign your letters.
My wife and I moved here nearly 30 years ago to raise our children because it was a welcoming, friendly, neighborly kind of place. Neighbors and complete strangers reached out to help, there was a very clear sense of community. This village helped raise our children and we are grateful for it. It was not utopia, lots of maintenance had been deferred, some adjacent neighborhoods were poorly served. But the community addressed those issues and a lot has changed for the better.
SMAC’s attack seriously undermines the very qualities that have attracted so many to come here. It has taken a really mean turn of late and it is sad. Town meetings are open, go there and speak your piece. But do not presume to represent the community, we elected commissioners to do that.
St Michaels MD 21663
Views of John Garland
Yesterday we received a copy of “The Lantern” letter in our post office box. Several of our neighbors say they also received a similar letter. Not only is there no sender’s name on the envelope, the enclosed letter wasn’t signed. I recall a 4th grade teacher once saying back in the 1970’s as we were learning to write letters, “if you don’t sign it then it’ll go in the trash.” However, because we are full-time St. Michaels’ residents the letter’s first paragraph piqued our interest. We read it – and were disappointed in its tone, content, and intent.
We enthusiastically support the Fremont Street location and live on the same side of town but at the opposite end of Fremont Street (Dodson Avenue). We believe municipal investment for the new town office on Fremont Street is an incredibly important development for this side of Town. As you know, most of the Town’s working class live on our side of Talbot Street and this side of town is in desperate need of ongoing municipal investment.
Here are a few points on this topic that we believe are important:
1. Unsigned and anonymous letters sent to the entire town’s residents are never a good way to make an argument and are an indication of cowardice and ill intent on behalf of the sender.
2. What exactly do you mean by “unsafe”? – use of that word seems pejorative in this context.
3. Modern municipal buildings are important indicators of the overall vitality and future-thinking of a community.
4. You may have noticed the Smithsonian’s web address ends in .edu (www.si.edu) indicating its primary mission as an educational institution. Although the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s web address ends in .org it is indeed an educational institution with a growing campus and is an indisputable cornerstone of our community. Any view otherwise is simply shortsighted and unfortunate – and potentially dangerous for the future health of our community. Any opportunity the CBMM might have to purchase a campus-adjacent piece of property is a positive sign for our community.
5. Having attended several COSM meetings and read most, if not all, COSM minutes including details related to the Fremont Street decision, the decision seems sound and in the entire Town’s best interest. Here are a few of your red herrings and what we think of them:
a. Lot too small – There are large buildings on small lots throughout this town and it never seems to be an issue, including those for businesses. This is a small town that literally takes no more than 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Accessibility for people with disabilities to the new town office has been fully planned. Frankly, several businesses in town attract more traffic than the Town office will ever attract – yet the new Town office will have its own parking as outlined in the plan.
b. Costs – costs have been detailed in the plans and seem reasonable for location and price per square foot.
c. Bullying commissioners via anonymous letter – it’s one thing to simply disagree, but to think commissioners should be bullied into another point of view simply because a series of informed, publicized, and clear votes didn’t go the way of the anonymous letter writer(s) speaks for itself.
6. There’s no question that in-fill development within any town is a win-win for everyone, especially for areas where long-term development is needed such as Fremont Street.
7. We support a larger plan that includes some type of Fremont Street development initiative that runs from the proposed new Town office all the way to Dodson Avenue. You may not realize it, but many locals on our side of town use Fremont Street as our ‘Talbot St’ to get from one part of town to another. We need municipal development to improve pedestrian walkways, overall revitalization, and to support existing businesses, churches, and community organizations – the new Town Office is our opportunity.
8. Please send us a list of all members of SMAC so that we may reach out to them directly and transparently.
St. Michaels, MD 21663
Views of Jeff McGuiness
This Thanksgiving, there was much to be grateful for in St. Michaels. The Perkins family brought our community a stunning new YMCA, a remarkable facility for a town as small as we are. The Motor Museum led by the DuPonts with its beautiful Amish barn and restored buildings along with the collection of classic motor vehicles has become a new dimension among the town’s tourist attractions. The Hockadays took the abandoned Acme building in the heart of town and created a vibrant commercial venue. Kristen Greenaway’s vision at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is drawing people from far and wide in record numbers, and its shipyard is now constructing a replica of the Dove which brought the first settlers to Maryland in 1634. In July, the St. Michaels Commissioners held St. Michaels Night Out, a joyous celebration of our town during which Harold Baines was honored and Seymour Street named after him. All these folks are St. Michaels heroes.
Unfortunately, amidst these positive developments is an ugly dispute over the construction of the town’s new office and meeting hall. The current one is wedged into a mid-20th century rambler in the middle of St. Michaels’ main tourist district. Most agree that a new office is needed, but battle lines have been drawn over where it should be located, how much should be spent, and what it should look like.
St. Michaels has a slow, deliberative process for making zoning and construction decisions. One tool it uses is its Comprehensive Plan which in 2015 designated Fremont Street, a neglected area of town, for development. The town’s library, police station and two municipal parking lots are now on that street. Work is underway to construct the new town office on Fremont, the logical next addition.
Not everyone, however, views this step as positive one, most notably the St. Michaels Action Committee or SMAC led by John Novak. SMAC wants the new office located on a lot on Mill Street adjacent to the Maritime Museum, Crab Claw Restaurant and Patriot cruise ship.
There are a number of problems with placing the office there, beyond the fact that our government center shouldn’t be in the heart of a tourist district. The property in question has a sewage pumping station on it, and several sewage lines come to an apex underneath it, limiting its development potential. Part of the property and the street in front of it flood during king tides which means that access to any office building on it would be reduced as sea levels rise. It is noteworthy that during the many months of development of the town’s current Comprehensive Plan before the Planning Commission, not once did anyone propose putting the town office on the pumping station property.
In addition, the property is zoned Maritime Museum. Thirty years ago, the town’s planning process determined the lot should go to the Maritime Museum when it had the resources to purchase it which it now has. Talbot County history is replete with examples that unless most everyone agrees with a proposed zoning change, particularly those negatively impacted, it will likely never happen.
SMAC, nevertheless, brought a lawsuit against the Town earlier this year because it felt its voice wasn’t being heard, an intimidation action that is likely to cost taxpayers well over $75,000. Now SMAC has sent a letter to everyone in St. Michaels saying that it will be seeking a petition referendum directing the St. Michaels commissioners to conduct a study of the property, apparently to determine its suitability for construction and figure out its value. In a lengthy video published by The Spy a few weeks ago, Mr. Novak makes the implausible claim that the property is worth $1 million.
Many of us in St. Michaels would like to see the town continue its positive trajectory and move beyond this puzzling and divisive situation. Four of us sent our thoughts to SMAC after receiving its letter, and we wanted to share them with the community in the hope that we can start 2020 with this dispute behind us. It’s time for St. Michaels to have a fresh start.
St. Michaels, MD 21663