March 2, 2016

Time to Move On

By Phyllis Bonfield


Storm clouds over the Chesapeake Bay

During the twelve years we had our Chesapeake Bay home, we learned much about the power of nature. We watched strong weather systems sweep up the Bay and when the sun broke through the clouds after a storm, we saw colorful, double rainbows stretch across the sky.

We also learned, firsthand, the downside of nature’s power. In previous blogs, I’ve detailed efforts to save our home when erosion claimed ever more of our cliff. Shoreline erosion and the effects of sea-level rise on our shores were a constant reminder of these powerful forces.

In a way, I’m glad the decision to leave the Chesapeake was not entirely our own.  We would have wanted to stay longer than we should, either because of cliff erosion or our own age.  We worked for years to save our home and were relieved when we got a permit in December 2006 to build a stone breakwater. We knew a lot of damage had been done by that time.

Even so, we were caught off guard when Calvert County wrote us in February 2012 saying we were one of ten homeowners eligible for a FEMA buyout. We were not aware FEMA had conducted a study along the Calvert Cliffs to determine if it was better to try and stabilize the cliffs or buy properties in imminent danger of erosion.



The formula for a FEMA buyout is straightforward: the federal government pays homeowners 75 percent of the fair market value of their property before the disaster occurred.  While buyouts generally occur as a result of flooding, our “disaster” was a tornado that came through the county in June 2010.

With a buyout, states or counties often provide the remaining 25 percent to homeowners.  In our case, state and local officials agreed to administer the buyout, but refused to provide any money. It meant we, as homeowners, had to pay 25 percent of the cost of buying our home, plus 25 percent for demolition, engineering and closing costs. Calvert County now owns ten vacant lots that must be kept in their natural state ad infinitum.

deskThe buyout was a comedy of errors from how FEMA and the state did their part of the project to how the county managed it. While we were losing our homes, we got double talk from the government. The buyout was not completed until May 2013 – fifteen months after we were first informed. As for one, we had to pay two mortgages for nearly a year.

Since nothing would ever be built on our property, we had agreed to sell our breakwater stone to a friend who lived nearby. Then a strange thing happened just before the buyout was completed. The county attorney called and said if we sold our stone, we would not be eligible for the buyout. Needless to say, selling the stone was off the table.

From previous blogs, you might remember U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources tried to stop us or anyone else on the Calvert Cliffs from constructing shoreline erosion controls. Their reasoning: it would disturb habitat used by the Puritan tiger beetle, put on the threatened/endangered species list in the early 1990s. While neither the state nor federal government spent funds to rehabilitate the species, they did pay a biologist to count the beetles during their mating season in the summer.

It was difficult to leave the Chesapeake Bay. We knew our house was unsaleable and we knew we were fortunate to get money for it. We had previously made the decision to be closer to our family in the Philadelphia area when we moved. After numerous house hunting trips up Interstate-95, we moved to Elkton, Maryland, in July 2012.

Sunrise on the Chesapeake Bay

Sunrise on the Chesapeake Bay

Leaving the Bay meant saying goodbye to a wonderful way of life. Goodbye to friends and our well-established social and religious connections.

It meant saying goodbye to sunrises over the Bay, to watermen pulling up their crab pots and watching the many ships go up and down the Bay from the Port of Baltimore.

It was particularly hurtful to know our wonderful home would no longer exist. According to FEMA rules, the house had to be demolished within 90 days of the buyout’s closing and the property returned to its “natural state.”  We did ask if that meant taking out the stormwater management systems we had installed. We got no response.

While we were living on the Bay, my first grandson was born. Moving closer to Philadelphia meant being with him more often. It meant being a more active part of his life. We would also see family and old friends more often. There is always an upside to most every situation.  Thank goodness.

The Takeaway: We are stronger than we think we are when tested with difficult situations.  Age has taught us something and that is good.

Would you like to share a situation in which you were tested? If so, write me. Please provide your name so I may reach you if I have a question. I will not print your name. Contact me at [email protected]

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Phyllis Bonfield

About Phyllis Bonfield

Phyllis has been writing for publication since she was an editor on her high school newspaper. After graduating with a degree in journalism, she worked for more than 30 years with educational and not for profit organizations in public relations, marketing, conference planning and development. Prior to her retirement in 2004, Phyllis was the marketing & development manager for a Philadelphia-based regional library resource network. She was in charge of web development, publications, membership recruitment and conference and event planning. Phyllis also served as vice president of public relations for an association serving the financial services industry. She directed an award-winning public awareness campaign in conjunction with the American Red Cross. She was also instrumental in developing a campaign to promote business ethics in America that received front page coverage in USA Today and recognition on CNN, ABC and other national news outlets. After she retired, Phyllis waged a personal PR campaign to curb shoreline erosion at her home on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The project included organizing other shoreline homeowners and Maryland’s elected officials to take on 17 federal, state and local agencies who opposed her property receiving a building permit for revetment. After a two-year effort, she received the first permit on Maryland’s western shore to build a continuous nearshore breakwater. This project paved the way for neighbors to receive similar permits for erosion control. Phyllis has a bachelor of journalism degree from The University of Texas-Austin where she majored in advertising and public relations.