Why is it so hard to build a boating center in a county with more than 500 miles of shoreline?
As testimony piled up Monday night for and against a center at Homeport Farm Park, I kept asking myself who would be against this idea?
Baltimore has one. Prince George’s County has one. Shouldn’t we? Public water access, right? A place for water sports education, right? Someplace everyone can use?
Turns out I was asking the wrong questions. There is no plan to build a public boathouse at Homeport Farm Park in the proposed budget for the Department of Recreation and Parks – just a fight before the County Council over the idea.
There are 99 rec and parks projects in the budget: feasibility studies, repairs and upgrades and money to finish work at Fort Smallwood Park and Beverly Triton Nature Area.
“Not a single person came to talk about that!” said Jessica Leyes, county director of recreation parks.
Confusion over the phantom boathouse is more than arguing over who gets to paddle out of a 24-acre park near Annapolis on the South River. After decades of focus on creating more public water access, advocates are fighting over changing limited existing resources, even when no such proposal currently exists.
Mike Lofton headed the county’s Water Access Commission until it was disbanded in 2019. He said lots of complex reasons got us where we are today.
There are competing demands for waterfront public land, like push-pull between preserving the Navy’s Greenbury Point Conservation Area or building a new Navy golf course.
It also has to do with historical decisions, like giving private communities the ability to collect their own property taxes for maintaining waterfront parks while not investing in ones everyone can use.
“Public officials have transferred their most powerful tool, the power tax, to resident committees to create private waterfront recreation facilities; beaches, marinas, launch ramps, and the like for the exclusive use of residents and their guests,” he wrote in an email recently.
And it has to do with passion over how best to use the few resources that exist.
Several years ago, a coalition of rowers, paddlers, kayakers and adaptive boaters launched a campaign to improve the situation by building a public boating center. The campaign culminated with a design for Quiet Waters Park that included storage, docks and a boathouse for training and events.
The Annapolis location got shouted down just before the pandemic by neighbors and kayakers who called it inappropriate and unworkable.
Today, some longtime water advocates say the idea was always a mirage, and if it were built, it would only benefit people who own boats too big to be easily moved on top of a car or in the back of a pickup truck.
Rowers vs. kayakers.
“It turned out it wasn’t going to be this wind in the willows things,” said Lisa Arrasmith, a Chesapeake Paddlers Association steering committee member. “It’s a Trojan horse. It’s a mirage.”
It wasn't about public water access at all, she said. It was about access for private clubs.
“There’s this false picture that there is some desperate need for a facility, to the point where people are debating how are we going to do this, rather than should we do this.”
That coalition? It mostly split up. Some found permanent homes; others are still looking.
That’s where Homeport Farm Park comes into the picture. After the Quiet Waters Park idea collapsed, Leyes' department turned to the park just south of Annapolis as a possible location for the concept.
“We started looking at other sites, and one of the sites that immediately came to our attention was Homeport,” Leyes said.
It is similar to Quiet Waters. There is a small kayak launch with storage racks. It’s on the same body of water, the South River, in a protected creek.
Unlike Quiet Waters Park, one of the most popular parks in the county, it’s underused.
Then, a feasibility study determined the idea wasn’t workable. When the county acquired the land in 2004, it signed a deed that restricted the land to passive use. No development. No ballparks. No boathouse.
A reference to the study, however, showed up in a presentation to the Recreational Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the county on programs, services and facilities. That came to the attention of Arrasmith, a former member of the disbanded water access commission.
Arrasmith emailed Leyes, laid out all the problems regarding Homeport Farms and asked what the county was up to. Leyes’ response on Jan. 24 explained it as confusion.
“We are looking for a public amenity to serve the rowing population of Anne Arundel County, not specifically the Annapolis Rowing Club,” she wrote. “I have met with the Junior Rowers who are currently leasing private property and have had several conversations with the (Board of Education) regarding public rowing programs. This may be the same property but a very different model/approach to providing water access.”
Arrasmith, who has deep skepticism regarding County Executive Steuart Pittman's commitment to water access, began to sound an alarm that the county was trying to sneak its boathouse idea into Homeport Farm Park. She says she "probably" wrote the article in the paddlers association newsletter that Pittman blamed Tuesday for creating the confusion at the County Council budget hearing.
She's not convinced by what Leyes is saying and expects more people to speak about the topic at the May 20 hearing.
“I think they’re saying that there is no plan for doing this because a feasibility study is not a plan…” she said. “That’s a baloney sandwich right there.”
Leyes called it a misunderstanding perpetuated by Arrasmith.
“She’s very wrong about a lot of things,” she said.
Leyes said the county abandoned the idea of a boating center, at least the one proposed at Quiet Waters Park. Instead, it’s trying to figure out what it can do for water access with other ideas – possibly including changes at Homeport Farms Park within the limits of the deed, possibly at other parks.
“We still had a lot of homework to do…” she said. “We’ve kind of changed our perspective of meeting the needs of the community.”
There are five public boat ramps in the county, more than a dozen places to put a kayak or canoe in the water, more than 30 places to fish and current work will raise the number of public swimming beaches to three.
Expanding opportunities for rowing is part of it. There currently are no public rowing programs in the county, only clubs that can cost up to $800 a year. Finding a place for a public program would expand participation in a competitive sport that can lead to college scholarships.
The Annapolis area is a good spot for rowing, with rivers, creeks and coves. Crew teams at the Naval Academy and St. John's College compete nationally.
So, the county started another feasibility study – and is paying for it out of its water access budget – on what can be done at existing parks to improve access to youth rowing. The Annapolis Rowing Club juniors, which draws students from schools because they don't offer rowing, currently lease space at the Girl Scouts Camp Woodland, but heavy rains often wash out the hillside trails to the boat storage area.
“Now you have a bunch of kids who can’t get to their boats,” Leyes said.
At the same time, her department is trying to help the rowing club find a home, even if it’s not at Homeport Farm Park, and working with Annapolis on Mayor Gavin Buckley's idea for a paddling center.
Annapolis is already at the center of a broader effort to expand public access to the water.
There is a proposal to create a national recreation area on the bay with Annapolis as its center, tying together cultural, environmental and recreational sites. Through a partnership with the National Park Service and the Department of Transportation, Annapolis has launched a study to figure out what it can do better along its 22 miles of shoreline.
When the developer of condos at an old marina site on Spa Creek decided not to include public access across its property, neighbors were furious but couldn’t force a change.
Eric Leshinsky, city chief of comprehensive planning, said the result was a 12-month effort to develop the first water use plan for the city, one that includes opportunities for diverse communities. He said water access, under pressure from development and other factors, is one of three existential threats to the city’s identity, along with climate change and affordable housing.
A public survey that is part of the study already has drawn hundreds of suggestions.
“The study also will explore opportunities for expanding access. It will basically give us some grounding,” Leshinsky said.
Annapolis has a public boat ramp, some street-end waterfront parks and a nature park with a pier. On top of that, Maryland just bought five acres once tied to the historic Carr’s Beach resort and plans to create a state heritage park in the city that will include a public beach on the Chesapeake Bay.
None of that helps Molly Owens, president of the Annapolis Rowing Club. She just wants to keep her group on the water.
The program for adults currently leases space at a private marina, but the ownership has changed and an extension of the lease is unlikely.
Critics at Monday's hearing painted the club as elitist and warned the council that letting it create a base at Homeport Farms would cause grave environmental damage. Owens was frustrated by the attack and blamed it on Arrasmith.
She said her group wants to add some storage racks but won't use its towboats at the park or expect exclusive use. The club doesn't have plans to build a boathouse.
“Look, the kayakers have 30 spots around the county where they have access to the water. We have none,” Owens said. “What we want is more water access for everybody. We’re not trying to kick anybody out. We don’t care who uses Homeport. It’s a county park.“
People who testified Monday included members of the old coalition advocating for the boating center and against it. One former member of the group sent a letter to the council Tuesday saying it didn't want to be involved in this dispute.
All of this would be easier to resolve if there were just more places to get on the water. But even talking about that can be difficult.
There are other waterfront parks on the South River, but none of them have the same easy access found at Homeport Farm Park.
Arrasmith thinks the county has fallen behind. She sees no new projects in the pipeline, just feasibility studies, erosion control, wharf repairs and continuation of existing projects.
Arasmith wants the county to look at a rowing facility as a cost-effective addition to a new public boat ramp somewhere, as the old commission once recommended, not put more pressure on existing sites.
“Progress on water access has stalled out in this administration,” she said. “They should be building more public boat ramps. They should be building more public swimming beaches. They should be building more public fishing piers.”
Leyes says there are studies underway to add paddling facilities at Valentine Creek Park off the Severn River in Crownsville and a boat ramp at Beechwood Park near the headwaters of the Magothy River in Pasadena.
"The Department of Recreation and Parks remains committed to providing increased public water access for all residents," Leyes wrote to the County Council Tuesday about the boat center testimony. "Park improvements are always compatible with deed restrictions and/or easements on the property. Furthermore, any new proposals will have ample opportunities for proper public input through the park development process."
The idea of a boating center, however, is probably sunk. For the moment.