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County poised to plunge into bay access with Fort Smallwood boat ramp

No county in the United States has more shoreline than Anne Arundel, yet few jurisdictions have less public boat access.

County officials will embark on an effort to change that when they break ground Tuesday on a $5 million boat ramp at Fort Smallwood Park in Pasadena.

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"The first step is always the hardest, and so this is the beginning of what I hope will be a much longer and more deliberate effort to get some more water access points established," said County Councilman Chris Trumbauer.

Advocates say the project, initially proposed in the early 1990s, has run aground over the years amid bureaucratic, budgetary and neighborhood concerns.

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"I think Rome was built more quickly," joked Mike Lofton, a member of the county's Public Water Access Committee. "I call [the Chesapeake Bay] the world's largest gated community. It's hard to get access."

Then-County Executive John R. Leopold included funding for a ramp feasibility study during his first term. Leopold, a Pasadena resident, said it's time that a county that boasts more than 530 miles of shoreline finally is giving its residents a way to enjoy it.

"It has been black eye to the county," he said. "There are many in the county that enjoy private marinas, but there's never been a public facility that would be open to individuals of all income levels."

Weeks after taking office in February 2013, County Executive Laura Neuman visited Fort Smallwood Park and decided to include the ramp funding in her first budget proposal.

"Public access to the water is essential, particularly in our county," Neuman said. "We often talk about wanting the community to appreciate the bay and the importance of the bay, and so we must make it easy for folks to get on the bay."

The project ultimately will span three county administrations, as the ramp is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2016.

The ramp will be funded by federal, state and local sources, which withered amid the recession. The Public Water Access Committee, a citizen-led group under the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, fought to shield the budget from competing interests.

"The committee didn't come up with the idea, but certainly they rallied around it. There were all sorts of attempts to cut the funding and derail the project, and the members of the committee would come and testify about the importance of the project and stick up for it," Trumbauer said.

Progress on the ramp had also been stymied for years by neighborhood concerns about increased traffic, so the recreation department looked to other counties for solutions and invested in an online scheduling system aimed at keeping boat trailers from clogging residential streets.

"We can stagger the amount of people that will be allowed to come in," said Recreation and Parks Director Rick Anthony, who noted that ramp users must obtain a permit from the county.

Advocates hope the Fort Smallwood ramp is the first of many along the county's many waterways, and the county is exploring ways to partner with private organizations that have boat ramps or to purchase struggling marinas and repurpose them for public use.

Councilman Derek Fink, who represents Pasadena and fought to get the project funded, said it's only fair that residents who pay to clean up the bay and its tributaries are given access to use them.

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"We're asking more and more out of taxpayers to protect our waters, so it only made sense" to build the ramp, Fink said. "I think it's going to get a lot of use. People are going to start seeing the water, being out on the water more, and hopefully start realizing what a treasure the Chesapeake Bay and all our local waterways are."

Lofton said his committee has identified potential locations for public access along every river in Anne Arundel and is working with the recreation department to not only add boat ramps, but kayak launch points, water trails and swimmable beaches.

"I know our members are very eager to get additional access points all up and down the coastline," Lofton said. "It's just the beginning."

Said Anthony, "We see that there is obviously a strong movement led by the water access group, but they were just the spearhead to it all. I think there is also a strong backing of Anne Arundel County citizens who want access, and what it really boils down to is that it's just the right thing to do."

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