EASTON — Economically thriving, vibrant municipalities lend themselves to a healthy county, Talbot County Councilman Pete Lesher says.
Lesher draws on experience from both sides, as he was elected to the county council in November 2018 after serving more than nine years on the Easton Town Council representing Ward 2. He recently paused to reflect on the accomplishments of the town council and mayor during his years of service.
“After those nine-plus years on council, Easton is a better place for what I and my fellow council members together did,” Lesher said. “To me, that’s what we’re put here on Earth for: Can I leave this place better for my children and the next generation than what I found? On this little piece in Easton, I think I can say that I played my part in doing that.”
Lesher credits Marsha Kacher with encouraging him to consider running for the county council after she saw him deliver a speech on July 4, 2017, at St. Mary’s Square in St. Michaels. Lesher will serve again as the event’s featured speaker this year with an address titled “All Created Equal.”
“It was, frankly, a hard decision to give up town council, because it’s really been a pretty rewarding experience,” he said. “It’s been a great group to work with.”
Since the town and county government often collaborate, Lesher still works with the same folks, though not at the same frequency or level.
“A lot of what my vision for the county is, is quite parallel to my vision for the town,” he said. “I want to support the municipalities and make sure that we’ve got growth policies and development policies in the county that support our towns. I think the whole county thrives when the towns are thriving.”
With prior positions serving on historic district commissions for St. Michaels and Easton, Lesher’s interests with the town council entailed keeping downtown Easton economically viable while retaining its community character.
Easton’s concoction of retail businesses, restaurants, visual arts and its anchor hotel, the Tidewater Inn, helps make for a thriving downtown scene, he said.
This wasn’t always the case, however, Lesher said. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the community questioned whether the Tidewater Inn’s era had passed, with cramped rooms and lack of climate control in each room.
When John Wilson took ownership, he proposed wedding businesses would restore the Tidewater Inn. With a talented chef and investment in the property, the restaurant saw a turnaround.
But then came the issue of parking.
Lesher said Wilson came to the town council with a request to take control of town-owned parking spaces along the street side of Tidewater Inn; valet service to a parking lot a block away was hindering business.
“It was a controversial decision,” Lesher said. “We had business owners across the block from Tidewater on Harrison Street who were very unhappy with us over this move.”
But Lesher believed it was the right thing to do and supported Wilson’s request.
With a newly restored lobby and added guest rooms and suites, the Tidewater Inn is thriving in the heart of downtown Easton.
Lesher said the town council grappled with downtown parking for quite some time, ultimately settling on free three-hour street parking with metered lots. The issue remains of downtown employees switching between free parking spaces. In the meantime, the council initiated talk of a downtown Wi-Fi project that would display available parking spots and make it easier to navigate the area.
Lesher also spoke to the town council’s financial support of the Eastern Shore Conservation Center when a private nonprofit replaced the property’s discontinued laundromat.
The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy focuses on open space preservation and, in recent years, created a Center for Towns to encourage inward growth. When the organization outgrew its headquarters in Queenstown and began eyeing the Easton property where it now stands, it came before the town council and requested $50,000 to assist in funding the approximately $8 million project.
Lesher told the council of the “spillover effect,” or added drive to business in Easton that the private nonprofit would bring.
“The symbolic importance of the town stepping up to the plate to that extent, I think, was very powerful in not only keeping their interest and dedication to the project but in leveraging some other funding for it, as well,” he said.
Lesher also spoke to the town council’s continued support of University of Maryland Shore Regional Health’s plans to renew and replace the Shore Medical Center in Easton.
With the original concept to build the new center between state Route 404 and U.S. Route 50 due to the proximity to major highways, and the location standing as the halfway point to hospitals in Cambridge and Chestertown, the site would have been on a sprawling cornfield.
Lesher said the future plans to instead build the medical center on the outskirts of Easton retain investment in the municipality. He looks forward to the day when project construction can begin.
“A lot of these principles are about growing inward, not sprawling out across the landscape,” he said. “That’s what drove me to join the town council.”
Lesher also touched on land use planning and, specifically, Easton’s growth plans during the next seven to 10 years. These plans regard annexing parcels on the outskirts of town. Lesher said there was explosive residential growth around 2004 to 2007, resulting in the Mulberry Station community and Lakelands at Easton.
Such rate of growth needed control, Lesher said, to encourage a “small town on the Eastern Shore” type neighborhood as opposed to looking like anywhere in the United States.
The Easton Planning Commission is examining the growth plan now, but Lesher said the time hasn’t come to start looking to expand outside of town.
“We still have the opportunity to grow inward. We don’t need to look at new annexations to provide room for new housing growth,” he said, highlighting the need for affordable housing for working class individuals like public school teachers and police officers.
Also, Lesher spoke to ongoing efforts in extending Rails to Trails and plans regarding Easton Point, an 11-acre parcel near Port Street and Glenwood Avenue. These projects continue to percolate, Lesher said.
Finally, Lesher discussed how his election to the town council, alongside Councilmember Megan Cook of Ward 4, brought a new sense of collegiality to re-engage council members.
“You don’t have to agree with your fellow council member in order to do business and to do it with dignity and mutual respect,” he said.
Don Abbatiello recently took over Lesher’s previously held Easton Town Council Ward 2 seat.
“I think he operates with that same set of values of mutual respect for his fellow council members,” Lesher said of Abbatiello.
As part of the county council, Lesher serves on the Talbot County Free Library board, Arts Council board and the Upper Shore Aging board, and he is the education liaison to the Talbot County Board of Education as he feels strongly about the schools and advocating for the school budget.
He estimated the county council necessitates a time commitment of about 20 hours per week, as opposed to about six for the town council. Lesher also commits more than 40 hours per week for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, serving as curator. He has served on the staff of the the museum since 1991.
Lesher graduated from Lafayette College and holds a master’s degree in history from Columbia University.
Lesher’s other civic engagements include serving as chairman of the St. Michaels Historic District Commission, on the board of the Maryland Humanities, on the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, on the Council of American Maritime Museums and as an accreditation peer reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums.
Past service includes curatorial chairman of the Talbot Historical Society, president of the Museum Small Craft Association, president of the Eastern Shore Association of Municipalities and member of the Easton Historic District Commission. He is a graduate of the Maryland Municipal League’s Academy for Excellence in Local Government.
He is a past council president of Grace Lutheran Church in Easton and a current member of the choir and worship leadership team. Lesher is a den leader with Cub Scout Pack 190 in Easton, an Eagle Scout and a member of the Talbot County Public Schools’ Gifted and Talented Advisory Committee.
Lesher lives in Easton with his wife, Mariana, and two children who attend Talbot County Public Schools.