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 eight miles of tidal river." The Potomac, "other than along the C&O Canal tow path, does not have much access either."
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 birders. Despite the recent downturn in real estate, waterfront parcels are at a premium and cost from $250,000 to $400,000 per waterfront acre, McKenzie says. 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 birders and canoeists.
There are bright spots in the public access story. Since 2000, Bay Program partners have acquired sites in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The Bay Program is 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 Captain 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," he says. "We will have greater access to Chesapeake waters in the future "because people want a better quality of life."
Stuart 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 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, McKenzie notes, "if they want more access to the Chesapeake, they will have to partner with developers."
The only alternative, McKenzie concludes, 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.
This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.