Part Two in the Series on the Oxford Strand Project
The sign above is posted on the disaster that is the Oxford Strand "Restoration" Project. The word "restoration' is in quotes because the project should be called the Oxford Strand Destruction Project.
The interesting part of the explanation on the sign is that this company, Underwood and Associates, thinks that the citizens of this town will be upset that there's no work being done on the project. They also seem to think that the cute explanation that the company workers "are leaving the project for a few months to let nature do its work" will make it sound like this is a natural process. It isn't.
Correct me if I am wrong, but hasn't nature done a great job creating our beautiful Strand without human help? Weren't hundreds of years of enough? If you have been down to the Strand recently, you would know immediately that this is NOT the work of nature. It looks more like the work of a strip-mining company that has dug up the land and left a shallow pool of water and some piles of dirt. It's quite disturbing. In other words, it looks like the Strand Quarry. The promised "tweaks" and "landscaping with marshy grasses" will not help. One look at the sign above shows you what the end product will look like.
It didn't need to happen this way.
If you had asked any long-term resident of the town of Oxford about their priorities during the last forty years, no doubt you would have heard about a variety of issues; the aging population in the town and loss of young residents and families, the high cost of homes in the town, the lack of traditional job opportunities in the town, and the flooding of certain main areas of the town. You might have heard complaints about the flock of ducks on the strand brought there by tourists feeding them and the rats and vermin they attracted or the lack of affordable cable. There were others, the day-to-day nuisances that drive people crazy. Locals often complained that they no longer knew everyone in town.
Flooding at the Causeway Entrance to Town
At no time did we hear complaints that the Strand beach was being flooded and washed away. In fact, many residents on the Strand (including a former Commissioner and his wife who recently moved) often complained that the beach was a "nuisance" because the people who visited it were loud and disruptive.
I don't remember the citizens asking for the Strand project. I think they asked for an entrance to town that wasn't flooded after a heavy rain. They asked about preventing flooding in other parts of town. If the Strand had to be protected, many citizens suggested more tried and true traditional methods (often called "gray infrastructure").
Somehow, beginning in 2018, saving the Strand beach through "green infrastructure" became a priority above all the other areas in town that flood more heavily and regularly.
Based on statements in town minutes starting in that year, it was a bait and switch.
If you don't know what a bait and switch is, it's when someone represents a product they are selling at a low price only to substitute another generally inferior product in its place when someone buys it.
While the Oxford Strand Beach is not a product being advertised for sale, it appears to be a project that was sold by town management to those offering grants as a way to protect the town's vital infrastructure while all along it really was just a way to get money extend to the small beach and attract tourists: This is from Easton's Star Democrat, April 2021:
Improving the shoreline will break stormwater surges through a mimic of
natural shoreline conditions. It includes a 1,000-foot sand dune on the beach
and three marshy islands out in the waters of the Tred Avon.
Residents have raised concerns about beach access and aesthetic changes, but
the engineers have promised the 13,000 square feet of the beach will remain
the same square footage after completion. Some of the grassy areas on the
beach will be encroached upon, however.
A recent look at the project belies the claim that at the end, beach will be the same square footage that it has always been. To the untrained eye, it currently looks more like three times the original footprint. Of course, there is not a " 1,000-foot sand dune" or marshy islands on the Strand.
Many residents of Oxford have registered their misgivings and outright anger about the changes and the fact that THIS project was not only put at the top of the priority list instead of really needy areas but that it is being done in a way that substantially changes the character of the historic Strand and the Town.
In the same Star Democrat article, Bhaskar Subramanian, the Shoreline Conservation Section Chief for the
Chesapeake & Coastal Service at DNR, stated another motivation for this project as it is being completed:
"The goal of the project is to make Strand Beach both 'bigger and better,' he
added, and the Strand Beach Shoreline Improvement Project is bold but
efficient. 'We want innovative projects' he explained. 'And especially ones that push
the science forward.' "
The grant for $2.8 million dollars given to the town was from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation who are partners in this endeavor. Both have specific interest in the project.
It's not unusual for government agencies and NGO's to offer big grants to communities. Sometimes they do it to solve problems, sometimes they do it because they have a big pot of money and have to do something with it or lose it, but more often they give grants to use communities as "guinea pigs" to push new ideas as Subramanian said. This allows the agency to use the project to get more funds, promote a certain methodology and agenda, and get involved in projects in other areas.
How are recipients chosen? Is it that the grant was so well intentioned, so well written that the state agency just HAD to give it to them, or, as it is with many public agencies, someone, an important staff member or politician has a "special" connection to a certain town or county and wants projects funded in that area. In Federal lingo, it's called "bringing home the pork." These agencies make money off these grants as well.
Is that how Oxford was chosen for this Strand beach project? We can't be sure.
Regardless of how Oxford was chosen for this project, town meeting minutes show that the presentation of the project was constructed in such a way to portray the grant as being about preventing erosion and protecting infrastructure on the Strand while, in reality, the town was being sold a project to create a bigger beach along the Strand. Why?
We know that certain Commissioners had voiced concerns about how they wanted to bring more tourists into the town despite the fact that the charm of Oxford is that there are NOT a large crowd of tourists traipsing down the streets all summer. The few businesses that cater to tourists are mainly restaurants, a gift shop, a bookstore, an ice cream parlor, a coffee place, and a general store. Commissioners saw a larger Strand Beach as part of an increasing tax income, regardless of the fact that the citizens in Oxford already saw the summer visitors to the small beach as a nuisance. Many of them who moved here were looking for a beautiful and quiet small town, not a busy beach resort.
In Town meeting minutes from July 2019, residents complained about activities and crowds at the Beach:
A resident (name withheld) also stated that having lived at the beach for many, many, years, he did feel that things had become much worse in recent years. A concern was expressed that people were on the beach all hours of the night and it would take to long for someone to drive from Easton if someone was to call 911. (Town Manager) Lewis stated that 911 would dispatch Chief Maxwell (*special note: Maxwell was our previous Chief and lived in town, a luxury we no longer have) and this was the normal dispatch for Oxford Police and that any citizen who believes something is wrong or has concerns should never hesitate to call 911.
And this statement was also made:
There were concerns regarding the planned resiliency improvements and the need to not create more beach than we have parking area, which was acknowledged by town staff.
They did it anyway.
But Lewis was browsing for grants and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation wanted a town to experiment with their new "green vs. gray" infrastructure solution to erosion. Lewis even stated at the time that "no one knows what the best design would be". However, she and the Commissioners were willing to take what seems like a big chance on the "green" infrastructure solution so they could collaborate with the National Fish and Wildlife Federation on new initiatives to partially save (and possibly increase) an "historic beach".
At no point in any of the minutes from town meetings during 2018 and on did any Commissioner ask if the town should look at other more urgent flooding priorities and solutions that would actually work, be more efficient and more economically funded. While "gray" infrastructure may not be the current fad for shoreline protection, it is still a valid solution that has worked in many places for a long time. The current design is an experimental boondoggle that will destroy a historic shoreline instead of a commonsense, priority solution that would have preserved an iconic symbol of the town.
Now we have something that looks like a dredge site in a quarry. And this is just PART ONE of the project. In all discussions of the project, other phases have been discussed which include improvements to an adjacent private property. Strangely, no one has mentioned the need to constantly maintain the sand dune, beach sands and "living islands" created by the experiment. This will cost millions. Who will pay for that? The State? Doesn't seem likely.
Unfortunately, the Governor of Maryland has told state leaders that drastic cuts to the budget will be coming, citing an upcoming huge budget shortfall in the making:
Governor Wes Moore previously hinted at hard times and budget cuts over the summer, and this week some of them became clearer. The state’s transportation budget, facing its own long-term gap, will be cut significantly.
The proposed cuts range from nixing highway improvement projects that haven’t started to reducing commuter bus service to cutting back on roadside litter pickup. Local governments would get a smaller share of the gas tax for their own road projects than they have in years past.
While he doesn't specifically mention cuts to DNR, it's a sure bet that the second part of a project for a town of 650 residents to save a beach or to maintain a dune and "living islands" will NOT be a state priority. The residents of Oxford will be left holding the bag. The "out of the box" design the Town Manager promoted will become a costly, ugly end to a once beautiful historic shoreline.
A friend of mine, upon seeing the Strand project asked, "How do we undo this mess?"
It's a great question. What can citizens do?
One, be heard. Most of the planning for this project occurred during the Pandemic when "in person" meetings were not happening. So, there were just a few who participated virtually. Now that they have seen what is going on, people need to go to town meetings and voice their opinions. Our town leaders must be held accountable, especially those who were in office during the planning of this debacle. ( The next meeting is Tuesday, December 12th at 6:00 p.m.)
Many want to demand that work on the project be stopped and reversed at the cost of the contracted company. This would probably demand litigation on the contract, an expensive, lengthy process.
If there is a way to mitigate the damage created to this historic shoreline, it should be investigated and implemented as quickly as possible.
Maybe in these months while the contractor is not working, Nature WILL do her work and get the Strand back to the perfect, beautiful place it was. She usually does.
We can only hope.
UPDATE: In a conversation with a state public official last night, we found out that the "living islands" restoration model cost four times what traditional fixes cost AND in many cases, the vegetation on the islands dies and has to be replaced constantly. Also, a consideration is that there will be an increase in wild "vermin" such as rats, etc. with the planting of wetland type grasses.