For 20 years, Susan Callis launched her kayak at the Sarles boatyard in Eastport.
The dock, and Petrini yard next to it, was on private property but the previous owner, Deb Smith, let neighbors walk to the water anyway. It was one of a few places in the city that she could put-in that was close by and convenient, Callis said.
Eastport residents now worry they will lose that access if it is limited to members of the redeveloped marina and boatyard on Spa Creek. And the project is within walking distance of some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where a lack of public access to the water was recently highlighted by an Annapolis alderman.
Bret Anderson, the property owner, said he won’t make any decisions until construction is complete and the property is open.
“When we’re done the project and we’re completely open, we’ll evaluate that,” Anderson said Thursday. “I have a business to run, and the business needs to provide safety for all. That’s my overriding concern.”
The marina should open in the next 12 to 18 months, he said.
Some say Anderson publicly promised that the water would remain open to the public. Anderson said his words were taken out of context.
“What I said to everyone is that I believe in providing a welcoming environment. ... The majority of people that use the facility were respectful,” Anderson said. “I don’t know how that will be in the future, but if I can recreate that same type of situation, then certainly we entertain access.”
Vic Pascoe, former Eastport Civic Association president, recalled Anderson presenting the project at a civic association meeting which displayed pictures of people walking on a boardwalk.
“It was kind of inferred by the pictures where people could stroll in front of the houses and boats. A lot of people thought, ‘Oh, good,’ ” Pascoe said. He said it’s difficult to say what will happen until SAYC is finally open.
Emails show there were concerns from Planning Commission members dating back to 2017 about maintaining public water access at the marina. Robert Waldman, the commission’s vice chair, wrote to then-City Attorney Michael Leahy on Jan. 6, 2017, that “public access to the waterfront must be clarified and protected.”
At a Planning Commission meeting the day before, commission members raised the possibility of requiring an easement in the project’s final application. The notion was dismissed at the meeting by Alan Hyatt, the attorney representing the yacht club.
Two months later, in a March 16, 2017, letter to Hyatt, city Chief of Current Planning Tom Smith, gave approval for the project’s site design with a number of conditions, including requiring the owner to “make reasonable efforts to allow for pedestrian access to the property” but stopped short of requiring an easement. The letter stipulated that access was at the owner’s discretion.
Sally Nash, director of planning and zoning, said the city’s law office at the time was hesitant to accept liability for an easement. Now the only way the city could revisit the issue is if Anderson returned to planning and zoning wanting to change something about the existing project, she said.
Anderson said there will be no public easement, though water taxi access could be available in the future when he expects a restaurant will be built on the property. However, no water access will be allowed during construction, he said, pointing to several instances of people driving through wet concrete and climbing on construction equipment.
Smith, who gave the final site design approval, said a change like adding a restaurant to the property, as Anderson suggested, might be an opportunity to revisit the issue of public water access.
“We’re obviously very sensitive to the community’s desires ... there’s a new city attorney now and he might have a different opinion on the liability,” Smith said.
Eastport Civic Association President Debbie Dillon questioned why the city had not stepped in to help.
“Is the city in favor of public access for citizens, or is it not?” she asked. “And what continues to happen is we see the water being walled off.”
Mayor Gavin Buckley said it’s difficult to do anything once the property is privately owned.
“If the property is gone, it’s private, it’s really hard to turn that around,” he said. “First of all, you don’t give it away. We should never give away waterfront property that is publicly owned.”
Callis said she had mixed feelings about the new development. On one hand, it’s good for the neighborhood to improve a crumbling property, but on the other, it means the loss of an Eastport landmark.
“The old neighborhood is totally changing,” she said. “It’s change that we have to accept.”
Water access equity
Less than a mile away from the future marina sit two public housing communities, Eastport Terrace and Harbour House, where residents have almost no public water access. Many places have been privatized over the years, while properties like Hawkins Cove have fallen into disrepair.
The issue resurfaced last month when Alderman DaJuan Gay, D-Ward 6, and three friends were stopped by police after visiting a private dock at President Point. Gay and his friends said they were returning from taking in views of Spa Creek.
The incident has pushed the issue of dwindling public water access in the city and his ward to the top of his priorities, Gay said. He wants to create more opportunities for young people to experience the water by exploring possible easements with private property owners, legislation and redeveloping existing properties like Hawkins Cove.
“In the sailing boat capital of the world as they call it — in Annapolis, Maryland — every single child who wants access to the Chesapeake Bay should have access to the Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
Groups such as the Annapolis Maritime Museum offer those opportunities. About 12,000 students participate in activities on the Chesapeake Bay annually, said Alice Estrada, the museum’s president and CEO.
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But more could be done, she said; part of the city’s urban planning must look at acquiring properties that become available, an idea shared by Anderson.
“Oftentimes, waterfront has become so incredibly valuable and it’s often gobbled up immediately by private developers and, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but there needs to be some political will for the government to acquire waterfront property so that they can provide the public access,” Estrada said.
Gay said he would support any effort to buy waterfront property that comes available.
However, the prospect of the city having any funds to do so is slim, given the continued financial shortfall due to the pandemic, Buckley said.
Alderman Rob Savidge, D-Ward 7, said he is mulling legislation that would require new developments to include public water access in their plans.
Buckley praised County Executive Steuart Pittman, who acquired 19 acres of waterfront property near Quiet Waters Park for $8 million last year. The property features 1,770 feet of shoreline and will eventually be open to the public as an extension of Quiet Waters Park.
“I say it all the time that good community space builds good community because something that can be shared by everybody is good for society,” Buckley said. “Rich or poor, young or old, Black, white, Latino, when you do it right, it brings people together.”