This Week's Take:
Public access: A growing problem in bay country

By JOHN WENNERSTEN
The Capital, June 21, 2008

The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are beautiful, but you can't get to them easily.

Currently, only 2 percent of the shorelines of the Maryland Chesapeake offer public access.

"Along the Anacostia River," says environmentalist Robert Boone, "there are only two boat ramps along 8 miles of tidal river." The Potomac, "other than along the C&O Canal tow path, does not have much access either."

Anne Arundel County also has limited access for boaters. There are just two full-fledged public boat ramps, one at Truxtun Park in Annapolis and another at Sandy Point State Park. The county government is working on putting one in Pasadena.

On Maryland's Eastern Shore, there is a shortage of waterside parks and boat ramps. Veteran kayaker Clarence "Doc" Kuntz points out that there is "very little Talbot County shoreline open to the public. Fifteen narrow boat ramps with minimal parking provide the only access points. Only the strand in Oxford offers a pleasant public shoreline in Talbot."

A similar dearth of Eastern Shore access points prevails on the Wicomico River and along the Nanticoke River. This makes it very difficult for canoeists and kayakers to enter the tributaries and have enjoyable experiences. Launching a canoe from a sloping shore at a local bridge is an option, but is not what many people have in mind when it comes to access.

The situation is worse in Virginia, observes environmental planner Stuart McKenzie. In the counties of Virginia's famed Northern Neck, where he works, only 1 percent of the shoreline is available to public access for kayakers, fishermen and birdwatchers.

Despite the recent downturn in real estate, waterfront parcels are at a premium and cost from $250,000 to $400,000 per waterfront acre, Mr. McKenzie adds. At these prices it is difficult for counties and municipalities to purchase a typical site consisting of two acres for a boat ramp and picnic area and one acre for parking.

Public access issues come at a time when the balance between the private and the public realm has shifted significantly, with personal property rights ascending over community access to landscape and seascape. Increasingly litigious landowners in riparian and coastal areas see themselves as an entitled class of second home or holiday homeowners who feel little obligation to open their property to bird watchers and canoeists.

One bright spot in the public access story is the Chesapeake Bay Program. Since 2000 the bay program has acquired sites for its Public Access Program and access has increased in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The Chesapeake Bay Program is currently 91 percent of the way toward its goal of 805 public access sites by 2010.

Today there is also increasing public interest in the expanding network of water trails like the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and land trails like those that connect the National Park Service's Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.

When it comes to improving public access to Chesapeake waters, Jim Rapp of Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experiences in Salisbury is optimistic.

"Our organization is scoring notable success with county governments and the hospitality industry in the region in recognizing the importance of eco-tourism. Kayakers, canoeists, fishermen and bird watchers all come to the region and spend significant sums of money," Mr. Rapp said. "We will have greater access to Chesapeake waters in the future "because people want a better quality of life."

Mr. McKenzie's experience as a planner on Virginia's Northern Neck prompts him to believe that it will be the developers themselves who will spearhead public access to the Chesapeake.

"They see the need for increased amenities for inland tidewater homeowners," he says.

He foresees them buying pieces of shoreline as set asides for boat ramps and water park access that will be available to their homeowners and to the public through tax rebates.

Whether environmentalists like it or not, notes Mr. McKenzie, "if they want more access to the Chesapeake, they will have to partner with developers."

The only alternative concludes Mr. McKenzie, will be to wait for bridges to be realigned so that old structures can be used as fishing piers - and that promises to be a long wait.

John R. Wennersten is the author of numerous books on the Chesapeake Bay and regional environments in the Mid-Atlantic. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

(Revised June 2008)