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Neighbors seek to buy Deep Creek Lake from Pennsylvania Electric Company McHenry residents fear limited access because of high fees set by utility


McHENRY -- No "for sale" sign floats on Deep Creek Lake yet, but a group of waterfront homeowners and businesses is looking to buy the 3,900-acre lake -- Maryland's largest -- from its Pennsylvania owner.

Mike Belmonte, president of the Deep Creek Lake Property Owners Association Inc., said the effort is prompted by concerns about future access to the Garrett County lake and maintaining reasonable boat and dock fees. Residents and business owners pay those fees to access the lake.

The lake bed and a surrounding buffer strip is owned by the Pennsylvania Electric Co., which uses Deep Creek Lake for a nearby hydroelectric plant on the Youghiogheny River. Maryland government owns and permits water use. The state Department of Natural Resources manages the lake's recreational use for Penelec.

Mr. Belmonte and other landowners still are miffed by Penelec doubling and tripling boat, dock and other fees last year. The utility increased the rates after federal energy licensing requirements -- which required Penelec to open the lake for public recreation uses -- expired at the end of 1993.

"The consensus in the business community is that [local] owner ship is not such a bad idea," said Bob Browning, owner of Deep Creek Lake Outfitters and a member of the Deep Creek Lake Business Association. "The concern is what is to stop Penelec from coming again sometime and tripling the rates. We have got to find a long-term solution. The state has not looked out for our interest."

Under draft legislation being proposed by the property owners, a special tax district would be created in the Deep Creek Lake watershed. Landowners would be assessed a special tax to help pay off bonds that would be floated to acquire the lake bed and buffer. A board of governors would be created to oversee the sale and to maintain and manage the lake, Mr. Belmonte said.

Whether Penelec, which created the lake in the 1920s and has allowed public recreation since, would consider selling the lake bed and buffer is unknown. Mr. Belmonte and others here said they have no idea what they would have to pay to buy the lake.

Cindy Abrams, a Penelec spokeswoman, said the utility was aware of the legislative effort but added: "We have not taken a position on the legislation, and we have not discussed the issue with the group."

Garrett County commissioners and local lawmakers have not yet endorsed the proposal. Instead, elected officials said they were waiting to see if there is widespread support for such a move.

"We would not ask for legislation unless people were supportive of it," said Commissioner President John Braskey. "It's in the very early stages, and we've not committed to the proposal. We've asked them to go out and talk to business people and others along the lake."

Sen. John J. Hafer, a Republican who represents Garrett and Allegany counties, said the Western Maryland delegation would introduce such a bill if local officials endorsed the idea. He predicted General Assembly approval, but he also said: "It's really premature to think about a bill until we have the support of the people in this yet to be determined tax district."

Patty Manown, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources in Western Maryland, said she was not aware of a similar situation elsewhere in the state. She said private ownership of the lake bed and buffer should not affect Deep Creek Lake State Park or public access to the lake at the state park.

"We're not directly involved in this issue," she said. "We really have to wait and see what the outcome is."

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