Midway to a 2010 goal, officials say it’s unlikely that states will achieve the Bay Program’s commitment to sharply increase the number of public access sites on or near the Chesapeake.
The main obstacle, officials say, is the high price of waterfront land.
“It has just become incredibly expensive to try to buy waterfront property,” said John Davy, of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and chair of the Bay Program’s Public Access Workgroup.
“It’s in high demand. The best sites for public access are also the same best sites that people want to find to buy for houses and things of that nature. So that is obviously a huge concern.”
The goal, in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, called for expanding the number of access points by 30 percent to increase public awareness of the value of the Bay and its tributaries. With the Bay cleanup expected to cost billions of dollars, many officials have long hoped to increase accessibility—and therefore support—for restoration.
When the goal was adopted in 2000, there were an estimated 619 public access sites in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Another 186 were needed to achieve the goal. Through last year, though, the number of access points had only increased to 688, leaving another 117 needed to reach the goal.
“It will be a difficult goal to make just because the cost of acquiring waterfront property has escalated so much in the last three or four years,” Davy said.
Officials in Maryland report similar problems. “We have found that it is getting more expensive,” said Lisa Gutierrez, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and a member of the workgroup. “We are competing now with development and developers who want waterfront, so it gets trickier and trickier.”
Besides the expense of acquiring land for a new access point, officials say new facilities are often opposed by neighbors in areas that are being, or have been, developed. “Everyone likes the thought of having public access except for the person who is right next to it,” Davy said.
The Bay Program counts four types of access sites: beach access, fishing access, boating access and natural areas.
“All of them require acquiring property,” Davy said, although the costs of developing sites can vary sharply depending on their use. Natural areas require little development—but may require more land—while boating access requires less land but more infrastructure.
Less than 2 percent of the land fronting the Bay and its tidal tributaries is open to the public, and high acquisition costs have made it difficult to increase that number.
According to figures from the Virginia DCR, about 650 acres of land with water access were purchased and opened to the public between 2000 and 2005. A number of other tracts have been purchased in recent years that will become parks in the future, but are not yet open.
Maryland had no figures available on waterfront land acquisition.
Most of the increased access sites since 2000 have been for recreational boating—either motorized watercraft hauled by trailer. or for the growing number of recreational paddlers—which requires less land acquisition.
But much of the emphasis has shifted toward enhancing existing sites rather than adding new ones. “One of the changes we’ve seen, and this is seen nationally, is that trailer boats are getting bigger,” said Bob Gaudette, director of the Maryland DNR’s Waterway Improvement Program. “So what we are trying to do is retrofit areas that we currently have.”
A new access site can easily cost $1 million to develop parking, boat ramps and other infrastructure, Gaudette said. Upgrading an existing facility more typically costs around $500,000. Such improvements could include expanding parking areas, widening existing ramps or dredging nearby areas to accommodate the increasingly large boats being hauled by trailer.
Maryland has the most access sites around the Bay—341 compared with Virginia’s 238. It also has a dedicated funding source for boat access improvements through a 5 percent excise tax paid on boats titled in Maryland and a small portion of the state’s motor fuel tax.
Although Maryland is likely to fall short of the 2010 goal, Gaudette was optimistic its programs would allow the state keep up with the demands of boaters in most parts of the state, although some local areas may need new facilities.
In Virginia, though, demand for access has outstripped the state’s ability to keep up, Davy said. On summer weekends at public boat access sites, “we can’t get everyone in,” he said. “Sometimes it is one in and one out on nice weekends.”
In fact, it’s possible that access for boat ramps may actually be decreasing. As land near the water change hands, “informal” access sites allowed by previous landowners are often closed down. “The dead end road site that people were allowed to use is lost, which pushes more people to use those sites that truly are in the public estate,” Davy said.
Because of the financial hurdles of creating new access, officials have increasingly emphasized moving toward the Bay Program goals by adding new access opportunities at existing sites, Davy said. For example, he said, a fishing pier can be added at a beach access and is then considered a new access opportunity.
Also on the rise are access sites linked to the growing number of water trails in the region. Those include sites suitable for launching kayaks and canoes, or small waterside areas where paddlers can stop for a break.
Water trails, in fact, have emerged as one of the easiest ways to provide access to the Bay and its tributaries. Through 2005, Bay jurisdictions had established more than 1,800 miles of water trails—far surpassing their 2005 goal of 793 miles.
And more trails are being planned, including a possible trail retracing Capt. John Smith’s explorations of 1607-08, which is the subject of a National Park Service study.
“It’s a whole lot easier to do water trails just because you don’t have the ownership issues,” Gutierrez said. The trails still require purchasing small tracts every few miles, she said, but kayak and canoe launch sites are often easier to buy and develop than other types of access sites.
“You are not buying a state park, you are buying maybe a little community park or a waterfront pier or an area where you have a small boat ramp,” Gutierrez said. “In general, the money can be leveraged easily for those smaller types of purchases.”
Water trails also help to meet one of the overall purposes of the access goal, which is to increase public support and gain local involvement.
“Water trails are a great way to instill stewardship in your constituency,” Gutierrez said. “If people are on the water, it gives them an opportunity to see the importance of preserving it, keeping it nice, keeping buffers on the streams. People really start connecting with that kind of idea.”
Free Public Access Guide
The Bay Program’s “Chesapeake Bay, Susquehanna River and Tidal Tributaries Public Access Guide” is now available. The full-color map/guide includes more than 650 public access sites in the Bay area, providing information on boating, fishing, wildlife viewing, beach use, parking and other opportunities.
The guide was developed by the Bay Program’s Public Access Workgroup, whose membership includes representatives from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. and the federal government.
Copies of the guide are available free in each of the Bay states, or by contacting the EPA’s Bay Program Office at 1-800-YOUR-BAY or its website, www.chesapeakebay.net.