Smith Island, off the coast of Maryland is home to 275 individuals, who have for generations made a living on the Chesapeake Bay. The legacy of the watermen’s way of life, which is the backbone of the community’s identity, is still alive and well today. The residents of Smith Island are part of a tightly knit community that cares for one another and maintains a high quality of life on an island. There is no law enforcement and few social services. Visitors are drawn by the unique setting and history of the community; growing numbers of “mainlanders” travel by boat to experience its natural beauty and culture with binoculars, kayaks or sitting on the front porch of a home. Despite the success of this hearty island community, Smith Island is facing serious challenges.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, local residents, state agencies, and county officials asked CBI and Horsley Witten Group (HWG) to lead Smith Island in a community-driven dialogue, or Visioning process, on the impact of natural hazards and on the many challenges to life on Smith Island. These challenges include: shoreline erosion caused by storms and subsidence, an aging and declining population, an economy anchored in fisheries threatened by pollution, increasing numbers of vacant houses, and infrastructure in need of major investment. Portrayed in the press as an island that could be three feet underwater in 50 years, Smith Islanders have often felt like they were fighting for more than preserving their unique way of life but are also fighting for the right to remain on the Island and invest in their future.

The purpose of this Visioning process has been to lay the foundation for meeting these challenges. There are certain components of every visioning process that are essential to make it successful – a safe place for community dialogue; collaboration among diverse members of the community; participants’ commitment to joint learning and exploration of new ideas; building consensus around what is best about the community; and creating a vision about what the community can become. The process for creating a vision for Smith Island includes these key elements:

  • A community survey to identify what is most valued about the Island and what needs to change;
  • Creation of a Steering Committee that is representative of the three villages, different businesses, watermen, and respected local, state, and county leaders to help guide the Vision process and to serve as spokespersons for the community;
  • A series of public meetings to create a space for open dialogue about the challenges and ideas for solving them; and A number of technical workshops to bring in outside experts to provide advice and information on the priorities of the community.

Over the course of the Visioning process, discussions within the community have revealed several recurring themes that are integral to the future success of Smith Island. These include:

  • Protect the Island from further erosion
  • Make the island more easily accessible to visitors and part-time residents
  • Sustain the watermen’s culture as the foundation of the economy
  • Build a more diverse local economy, including expanding tourism
  • Develop and maintain resilient infrastructure
  • Grow the year-round population

These themes are interdependent; success in sustaining and revitalizing the watermen’s way of life depends on broader economic success across the island to attract more young watermen and support their families.

The loss of income from watermen also has ripple effects for the rest of Smith Island’s economy. The interconnected nature of sustainability on Smith Island is also part of its infrastructure challenges. To leverage investment in sizable infrastructure projects, like the replacement of the sewage treatment facility, requires a long-term, organized commitment to growing the number of residents.

In March, CBI and HWG facilitated the third public meeting with the community and met with the Steering Committee to begin drafting the Vision Plan. The target date for a draft Vision Plan is this summer. In June the results will be shared with other communities at the Maryland Working Waterfronts Exchange. The Vision Plan will also be shared with the County Commissioners for inclusion in the County’s Master Plan.