From his blue clapboard and brick home overlooking Herring Bay in the southern Anne Arundel County community of Rose Haven, Mark Curl has views of some of Maryland's iconic sites: the Bloody Point Lighthouse and the Bay Bridge.
But a small patch of land much closer to his home — a private beach that is part of the popular Herrington Harbour Marina South, surrounded by 1,000 banana palm trees in the summer — has gotten most of his attention lately. Curl, who has lived at his home for about 30 years, says a beach-replenishment project this spring resulted in the deposit of large amounts of fine silt in Herring Bay, making for a muck-filled mess in the shared waterway.
Many in the neighborhood agree that this shouldn't have happened, but nobody seems quite sure why it did. Officials from the Maryland Department of the Environment, which issued the permit for the project, have said they found no violations in inspections during and after its completion. The marina owner and dredging contractor, meanwhile, point fingers at the state agency for its requirements.
"It's just horrendous," said Curl, a retired dentist who led a walk into the bay in an attempt to demonstrate the silt on the bay's floor at East Beach. Nearby residents use the waterway for swimming and boating — Curl says he enjoys fishing for rockfish in his 17-foot Boston whaler and riding personal watercraft with his wife and three daughters.
Previously, he and other neighbors said, the bay had a sandy, hard bottom. Both Curl's and a visitor's feet sank down several inches with each step. "I can tell you there's material out here that wasn't out here before."
The sprawling Herrington Harbour Marinas Chesapeake Bay Resorts consists of two marinas — the one where East Beach is located in Friendship and the other in Tracey's Landing — which together have 1,200 boat slips, pools, restaurants, bars and hotels, making them a popular regional vacation destination, and the location for weddings and other celebrations.
While its waterfront location draws the crowds, the beach and marinas frequently take a beating during storms. When Tropical Storm Isabel descended on the area in 2003, the rock channel jetty at the south marina was covered in about three feet of water. And with the storms comes erosion of the coastline.
About three years ago, the marina completed a beach stabilization project with the construction of a series of jetties to contain the beach and ward off excessive erosion. Still, this spring, the beach had shrunk and marina officials moved forward with the project, hoping to increase the size of the beach by about 50 feet using sand dredged from the bottom of the bay.
Steuart Chaney, who owns the marina, contends that the way the MDE instructed him to do the project — by building a large trench on the beach surrounded by berms — was probably not the most environmentally friendly way to proceed.
Chaney says that while his dredging and beach replenishment project didn't create the massive amounts of silt that Curl alleges, there was some movement that occurs naturally and is allowed under state standards. He would have preferred to do the project without building the berms, which he says contained the silt brought up during the project, but caused it to be released all at once and made the effect more noticeable. Typically, during a beach replenishment project, sand is pumped directly onto the beach.
The dredger that Chaney hired from Southern Maryland Dredging warned against following the MDE's instructions, Chaney said.
"The dredging guy was emphatic that this wasn't the way to do it," said Chaney. "It's not the way to do it. You don't dredge a trench and put material in the water to do beach replenishment.
"This to me is where the state tells us to do things and that's what we're required to do. And sometimes they're good about it, and sometimes they're not. When we are told to do something by the agency, we do it. They're our bosses."
The MDE says the project was completed according to regulations, and that its inspections revealed nothing improper.
"The site was inspected several times and during those inspections, there was no evidence that the permittee was doing anything other than what was authorized under the permit," said Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for the MDE. "That is not to say that there was no evidence of silt movement in the harbor, but there is nothing that was attributable to the beach replenishment project. We have no specific evidence that the operation is causing excessive deposition."
The spokeswoman said the wetlands license that the marina received for the project required a berm and a silt fence to prevent "excessive sediment" run-off, which can damage water quality.
Compton Wilson, one of the owners of Southern Maryland Dredging, which worked on the project over a period of 10 days in March and April, said the berms prevented the fine particles like silt, clay and mud from dispersing gradually over the course of the dredging. Instead, the materials accumulated, and dispersed all at once. He said the sand may appear black and inky at first, but turns a sandy white a few days later and has no negative effect to the waterway.
"If you put a berm up, the silt gathers there," said Wilson, who has been dredging for 36 years. "It looks so much worse when you confine it. It was the confinement of the silt that was just bad practice. It was allowed by the permit, but it just doesn't look good. Some of the MDE inspectors just don't understand what we as dredge contactors do. But the end result would have been the same regardless. If you go down there and look, it's a gorgeous beach."
Curl says he doesn't have anything against the marina, and appreciates the value it has brought to the neighborhood and the amenities such as the pool and restaurants.
Charlie Sclater, who lives adjacent to the beach, said he worries that more damage will be done to the waterway every time the marina owners say the beach needs repairing, further increasing turbidity in the water and harming native oyster beds.
"We're just trying to protect our way of life," said Sclater. "We had a clean bottom. It was fun to play in. I don't know what's in there now. I think about it when I see my 11-year-old flinging that muck around."