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Getting connected

EASTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced on Friday, July 31, that Easton Utilities was awarded $13.1 million in grant funding to extend broadband to significant portions of Talbot County with insufficient service.

This investment is part of the $100 million in grant funding made available for the ReConnect Pilot Program through the CARES Act.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now — as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency,” Perdue said. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband.”

Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford attended the event at Triple Creek Winery in Cordova. He mentioned the recent events that have highlighted the need for rural broadband access.

“Our administration is working since day one — almost six years now — trying to bring broadband to the communities,” he said. “And the need has really been accentuated by the pandemic. Having the ability to live in this bucolic area and still be able to do the work and not have to move to urban centers is something we all want to see happen.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st, also attended and spoke about the importance of bringing broadband access to rural areas of the Eastern Shore.

“There has been a digital divide for years, and it has become accentuated recently,” Harris said. “Thank goodness we have an administration in Annapolis and an administration in Washington that realize that this is unfair. Ninety years ago we electrified the rural areas. Within the next few years, we’ll bring broadband everywhere.”

The total project will cost $17.5 million and will cover 122 square miles, reaching up to 3,447 households and 144 farms, plus several additional facilities located within the geographic footprint. The proven financial model will be comprised of investments from the USDA, Easton Utilities, the Talbot County Council, the State of Maryland and customers.

“The benefits of this project will be immeasurable to Talbot County and the positive impacts will last a lifetime,” said Hugh E. Grunden, president and CEO of Easton Utilities.

Easton Velocity, a service of Easton Utilities, will design, construct, own, operate and maintain the fiber-to-the-premises broadband infrastructure. The construction schedule with the location sequence and an estimated timeline is currently under development.

“It is essential to have a true partnership between all involved in the success of this project, including the end user,” said Talbot County Council President Corey W. Pack. “From start to finish, the entire application process was handled with precision and thorough attention to detail, with participation from many levels of all organizations involved.”

The five-year project called “Connect Talbot” will be implemented under the leadership of John J. Horner, Easton Utilities chief operating officer, and construction will begin in 2021. Horner was instrumental in the application process, coordinating and working with the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Office of Rural Broadband, Talbot County, CTC Technology and Energy and CCI Systems.

In 2017, the Maryland General Assembly established the Task Force on Rural Internet, Broadband, Wireless and Cellular Service to help address broadband inequities on the Eastern Shore and in other rural areas. Gov. Larry Hogan tasked the group to identify redundancies, gaps in service and funding options for increasing rural broadband in the state. Grunden was appointed to this Task Force where he shared knowledge with the team based on his experience leading a rural utility and telecommunications provider.

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America.

In Round One of the ReConnect Program, USDA invested $744 million to bring high-speed broadband e-Connectivity to approximately 162,000 households, 22,000 rural small businesses and farms, and more than 500 health care centers, educational facilities and critical community facilities located in 34 states.

On April 20, USDA announced the department had received 172 applications for $1.57 billion in Round Two of the ReConnect Program. The second round enabled USDA to implement innovative new solutions to rural connectivity by leveraging financial options with partners and continue the success of the first round of funding. The application window for round two closed on April 15.

In a unique partnership, Easton Utilities, Talbot County and the State of Maryland submitted an application to secure a portion of this USDA grant funding for the Talbot County broadband project. Proof of financial and operational sustainability of the project was key to a successful grant application.

“We look forward to successfully executing this project to help drive economic prosperity and improve numerous quality of life issues including employment, healthcare, education and social connections,” Grunden said.

“I am so proud of our rural communities who have been working day in and day out, just like they always do, producing the food and fiber America depends on,” Perdue said. “We need them more than ever during these trying times, and expanding access to this critical infrastructure will help ensure rural America prospers for years to come.”

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit

Easton Velocity, a service of Easton Utilities, is committed to keeping the community connected and current with a variety of service offerings designed to meet the needs of both residential and commercial customers. Visit or call 410-690-4605 to learn more.

Rare frog find reveals strange coincidence

RIDGELY — Seth Gregory was stopping by the pond in his neighborhood to feed the resident mallard duck when something caught his eye. A bright blue frog had emerged from the tall grasses and Gregory — the neighborhood’s reptile and amphibian enthusiast — scooped him up.

“I just grabbed him and ran back to show everybody,” he said.

Turns out, his blue leopard frog is quite rare.

Typically, leopard frogs aren’t an unusual sight in Maryland according to Jack Cover, general curator of living exhibits at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

“This is a Southern leopard frog, which you can determine from the white spots on the eardrums visible in the photograph,” he said. “They’re pretty common throughout the Delmarva Peninsula.”

The blue coloring of Gregory’s frog is caused by a genetic xanthic color mutation.

“This particular frog is missing his yellow pigment cells,” Cover said. “It’s pretty rare, even more rare than albinism in frogs. And because they’re so visible, they’re easy pickings for predators.”

Leopard frogs can typically be found near water sources — like the neighborhood pond where Gregory made his find — in tall grasses where their usual coloring of green or brown with dark spots can help them hide from predators.

Scott Smith, a wildlife ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was interested in Gregory’s find.

“We found a blue frog near Brick Mill Landing when we were fishing about 28 years ago,” he said.

Smith and his friend John Moulis, who also works for Maryland DNR, captured their find on film — a picture Smith still has in his photo album.

“It just struck me how this little blue frog, almost lazuli blue, came out of this pond,” Smith said.

He said the recessive genes that cause the xanthic color mutation may be more common in the Ridgely area, given how rare they are nationwide.

“It’s only a sample size of two, but it’s pretty interesting that I’ve lived here about thirty years and there are two blue leopard frogs from the same area.”

Perdue visits Choptank Transport in participation with USDA program

PRESTON — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited a Choptank Transport warehouse Friday, July 31, in Preston.

The warehouse is being used for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Produce from Laurel, Delaware-based Vincent Farms was going in the boxes, and several representatives from the farm led Perdue on a tour of the facility.

Perdue left with a good impression of the facility and the information Nathaniel Vincent gave him on the farm’s production.

“Very impressive, seeing this Eastern Shore produce going to good uses, the great program from the producers and farmers, as well as the logistics people in the middle, and then certainly the charitable groups distributing,” Perdue said. “This is what America does best, in my opinion. It’s really meeting needs, certainly, from a vital commodity like food to people who need it. I know these farmers here, Vincent Farms and others, are really proud that their produce is being able to go to people who need it in other parts of the country.”

The produce at the Choptank Transport facility is grown at Vincent Farms in Delaware, then transported to Preston, where it’s packed into the boxes.

Perdue visited the Teddy Bear Fresh Produce facility in Easton on June 5 in support of the same program. He said since then, the program has progressed significantly.

“(We’ve delivered) 50 million boxes. I think we were probably in the 20 million the last time I was here,” Perdue said. “So you can see how quickly it’s grown and we just celebrated recently our 50 millionth box. And that’s a lot of food for people who (need it). It’s inspiring.”

Originally, the USDA received $1.2 billion in funding for the program, which was intended to cover 40 million boxes. The funding has since increased to $3 billion.

The program came together quickly when producers and growers grew anxious about supply chain disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic. As videos circulated of farmers plowing under vegetables and having large amounts of excess produce, President Donald Trump told Perdue to come up with a solution fast.

Working with the USDA, the program developed in less than 30 days — a fast timeline Perdue and Harris agreed is a rarity at the federal level.

“I’m really proud of our USDA career people that came in and designed this program,” Perdue said. “(A) congressman knows a federal procurement program like this usually takes 12 to 18 months. They did this in three weeks because that’s where people were going hungry, they were out of a job, they needed it. And that’s when they needed it. It didn’t do any good 12 months from now.” Perdue was joined by Delaware Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kenny Bounds and Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Joseph Bartenfelder.

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st arrived at the end of the tour, and he touted the program.

“This is a win-win-win. Everybody wins by this program,” Harris said. “What we’re seeing nationally, of course, as some places begin to reclose their restaurants, is the supply chain still needs to be supported. Obviously, here on the Eastern Shore, agriculture’s incredibly important for the communities. The communities win, our famers win, and obviously the recipients of the food win as well. So this is just a great program. I hope we keep this program going right up until we’re out of this crisis.”

Follow me on Twitter @SethTow.

Trial set for man charged in Oxford woman's death

EASTON — An early March 2021 jury trial has been set for Dante Kane, the 19-year-old accused of striking and killing pedestrian Edith Beglin, 71, with his car in Oxford in July 2019.

Talbot Circuit Judge Stephen Kehoe set Kane’s trial date during a hearing Friday, July 31. The trial is slated to stretch from March 1 through March 10, and Kane is expected to appear for a pre-trial hearing on Jan. 22.

Kane’s trial previously was scheduled for July 13 to July 16, 2020, but the proceedings were canceled after the courts shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kane is facing charges of negligent manslaughter by a motor vehicle and causing death by negligent operation of a motor vehicle. He was criminally indicted in Talbot County on Jan. 13 and subsequently arrested on Jan. 29. Days later on Feb. 3, Kane was released from jail on a $10,000 bond paid by a bail bondsman, according to court records.

The charges against Kane, as previously reported in The Star Democrat, stem from his alleged role in the death of Beglin, who died July 1, 2019, immediately after Kane’s car hit her as she tried to walk across Oxford Road. Police said the 19-year-old’s car was traveling at a speed three times the posted 25 mph limit at the time of the crash.

Beglin reportedly was walking to the Oxford firehouse, where she served as the Oxford Fire Company Ladies Auxiliary president, when she was struck and killed.

Kane, who lives in Brooklyn, Md., also is facing charges in Howard County, Ocean City and Glen Burnie for alleged drug and traffic offenses — all of which are unrelated to the pedestrian crash that killed Beglin, according to court records.