Fight looms on waterfront plans Baltimore Co. battle pits economy against the environment


Due to an editing error, a photo caption in Sunday's Sun misstated the position of Jack Hession on a proposed mini-Harborplace near Middle River. Mr. Hession, president of the Back River Neck Community Association, has no position on that project; he opposes a proposal that would allow 15 percent growth for Baltimore County marinas.

The Sun regrets the errors.

These days, Jack Hession's solitude on Sue Creek is sublime.

From his sun-splashed living room, he and his family can watch great blue heron and red fox feed along the frozen creek in eastern Baltimore County.

But with the arrival of warm weather, this serene picture changes in texture, disturbed by outboard motors, boat horns and the shouts of water skiers. And this seasonal change has spurred Mr. Hession to lead the charge against a county proposal that could significantly increase the size of marinas and bring more boaters to the area.

The battle shapes up as a classic confrontation pitting economic development against preservation and environmental concerns on the county's Eastside, where about 7,000 boats already are docked on the Middle River and her tributaries.

It also serves as a reminder to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III that his ambitious plans for a mini-Harborplace near Martin State Airport -- welcomed by many area residents -- won't materialize without a fight.

This month, the Ruppersberger administration plans to introduce resolution before the County Council to allow the area's 33 marina owners to expand by 15 percent -- or by a maximum of 25 slips.

After a marina completes an expansion under the proposal, the owner will be prohibited from seeking other additions for five years.

Act now, members of the marine industry say, or boaters will leave Middle River for such waterfront destinations as Havre de Grace, Rock Hall and Kent Narrows.

"We have to keep up with the times, reconfigure for new broader-beam boats and add amenities, or you could wind up with a bunch of rotting piers and boat owners who can't wait to get out," said Ray Porter, president of the Marine Trades Association of Baltimore County.

Another consideration for the marina owners: slip rentals that range from $700 to $2,500 annually.

"Let's look at it another way," Mr. Porter said. "If you take all of the boats out of Middle River, what would that do to the local tax structure, where would the children of the residents work?"

He said the recreational marine industry in eastern Baltimore County has an annual economic impact of $130 million, based on a 1994 study. Included, he said, are payroll, taxes and tourist dollars spent in restaurants, boat repair yards and marinas.

"And if Dark Head Cove does eventually become a mini-Harborplace then we have to allow for growth," Mr. Porter said. "No other place in the county has the water; it is an asset that can bring new life, jobs and tourist dollars to the Eastside."

But residents do not speak kindly of the growing boat traffic.

Mr. Hession, president of the Back River Neck Community Association, views the proposal suspiciously.

"Dutch's proposal is totally unacceptable," said Mr. Hession, a retired paper company executive. "We will lobby, protest, anything it takes. We think a 5 percent growth is much more reasonable."

Dr. Joseph Bronushas, a retired university professor and family practitioner who has lived along Middle River for 40 years, said increased boat traffic has caused environmental damage.

"I'm all for economic development but how do you make a river bigger?" Dr. Bronushas said.

He said boat traffic over the decades has worn away vast amounts of bottom vegetation that once cut down boat wakes. Those waves, he said, have forced him to replace his bulkhead twice.

"Today you have formula boats that go 80 mph," he said. "There is a speed limit on the weekend but nothing during the week. I take one heck of a beating from the wakes."

But Mr. Ruppersberger says the expansion of marinas will not alter water circulation or salinity content, and will not disturb neighboring wetlands or submerged plant beds.

An earlier county proposal for a 25 percent expansion -- or 40-slip maximum -- has been on hold since last summer because of protests by environmentalists and waterfront residents.

If the current proposal passes, marina owners looking to expand will no longer face a lengthy process through federal, state and county agencies -- called a Water Dependent Facility Plan -- which many say runs as high as $50,000.

The thousands of boats docked on Middle River and its tributaries are joined by hundreds of additional craft that visit Hart-Miller Island from other states and those brought to the county's 175-mile shoreline by trailers.

Veterans of the waters of Middle River have witnessed dramatic change -- in the number of boats on the river and in the types of vessels and their captains.

"The leisurely pace of Middle River is gone," said Gene M. Nuth, an official of the Baltimore Sailing Center at Rocky Point Park, a sailboat racer out of the Long Beach Marina on Frog Mortar Creek and a veteran of the river since 1972.

Mr. Nuth said there has been a major increase in faster vessels, from personal watercraft to 50-foot, multiengine speedboats.

"There is also an increase in people who don't understand the protocol of the water, people lacking common sense," he said, citing a recent encounter with a boater who was trying to navigate the bay with a Maryland road map.

Annual slip fees at his marina run from $1,500 to $2,200. The size of the boat and marina amenities, like swimming pools or shower facilities, figure in the fees, said Mr. Nuth, warden at the Maryland State Penitentiary.

George G. Perdikakis, county director of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, said a marina expansion plan has been debated for eight years without resolution.

He hopes to start gathering more data "so we can make better, well-educated decisions about the future of the environment and how much erosion occurs along the banks because of boat traffic, if and how wildlife is impacted."

Mr. Perdikakis said he has been meeting separately with residents and marina owners on a monthly basis, and plans to hold joint quarterly meetings with the groups. "If we do nothing more than get both sides to agree to disagree, then we are making progress," he said.

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