It's always nice to have a public park next to your back yard -- especially if you decide to make it part of your back yard.
All over the crowded Baltimore region, people are mowing public land, planting gardens on it, creating compost piles. They're erecting sheds, burying pets, cutting down trees to improve the view. Some people have built driveways, swimming pools and parts of houses on public land.
In Baltimore, people park their cars on parkland. In Anne Arundel County, they park their boats. In Carroll, they have been known to park their horse manure.
The problem is so widespread that even park officials who try say they are powerless to stop it. The wealthier counties -- Howard, Montgomery -- do their best. Other counties ignore all but the most egregious encroachments.
Many residents don't know they are encroaching on parkland.
In Baltimore about a year ago, parks officials found a swimming pool that they believed is partially constructed on land in Herring Run Park, said Mike Baker, chief of parks for the city Bureau of Parks. He said the department is working to figure out the exact property lines.
"If it is on park property, they'll have to move their pool," Baker said.
Angela Anita Brandon-Salmond, who built the pool for her children, said the Bureau of Parks has not been in contact with her and she knows nothing about the issue.
When asked how she knows her pool is on her own property, and not on park property, Brandon-Salmon said she had to get a permit to build the pool. She said she will put up a fight before removing the pool.
In Anne Arundel County, parks officials are dealing with a case in which a homeowner built part of his circular drive on county land in the western part of the county near Maryland City. The department is doing survey work to double-check boundaries before notifying the landowner.
Several years ago, the corner of a house was built on public land in Broadneck Peninsula, said Tom Donlin, parks administrator for the county Department of Recreation and Parks. The department could have forced the homeowner to tear down the house, he said.
Instead, the county decided to sell him the land, Donlin said.
Brian Woodward, chief of natural and cultural resources for the department, said one man had a boat repair business several years ago on county property in Edgewater in the southern part of the county. He said the business covered 75 yards and included a shed, boats and some equipment.
"They claimed they didn't know," Woodward said. "It's a little hard to believe because everybody gets a plat when they buy a yard."
In Carroll County, all-terrain vehicles and hunting stands are common on county land. There have been some dumping problems over the years, said Richard Soisson, deputy director of parks and recreation for the county.
"We've had people who kept horses on their land and put all the manure on our land," he said. That was property bordering Piney Run Park, he said.
Don't fence me in
Howard County had a problem with a swimming pool three or four years ago, said Mark Raab, supervisor of the land management division for the Department of Recreation and Parks. The pool itself was on private property, he said, but the homeowner put underground irrigation and a concrete deck on parkland and fenced in about 5,800 square feet.
The county made him tear the pool up, Raab said.
"When push came to shove," Raab said, "he ripped it all out, cut the concrete, removed what was on county land and pulled the fence onto his property."
About seven years ago, somebody bulldozed about 1 1/4 acres of county land off Centennial Lane that was part of a reforestation effort.
"You could see the tracks from the dozer," said Dan McNamara, natural resource operations manager for the department. "They went right down into the stream and back-graded and took the vegetation out." He said the two residents responsible had to pay about $8,000 to replant the trees.
Perspectives on mowing
Enforcement differs from county to county. In Baltimore County, recreation and parks officials say they don't mind if people mow land that isn't theirs to extend their lawns a couple of yards.
"To me, an encroachment is a barrier," said John F. Weber III, director of parks and recreation in Baltimore County. "If you want to cut grass into the open space and make a nice grassy area back there and anybody who wants to can use it, I don't get too upset about that."
But in Howard County, McNamara said, one person mowing a small patch of county land might not seem like a big deal -- but multiplied by thousands of homeowners it can become one. He said it destroys animal habitat and buffers that prevent pollutants from entering the Chesapeake Bay.
Encroachment is a problem on state as well as county land.
In the late 1980s, somebody built part of a house in Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County, said Susan Kephart, legal assistant for the attorney general's office for the Department of Natural Resources.
"A portion of their house, the deck and also a portion of the living area, as well as their septic tank, was on state property," Kephart said. She said the owners eventually moved it back 10 or 15 feet.
"I'm sure it was not inexpensive," she said.
"Many people throughout the state use park or forest facilities as their own back yard," she added. "We contact them and ask them to move it, and usually they do. If they don't, we file suit."
People also encroach on land owned by companies such as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
Bill Rees, a supervisor of forestry and right of way management for BGE, said dumping on BGE land costs the company "multiples of tens of thousands of dollars" every year. Motorbikes are a big problem, he said.
Last fall, BGE sued a North Laurel couple for having at least part of a controversial motorbike path on BGE property. The couple eventually agreed to give up the motorbike path.
"We try to block access as much as we can, but with 540 miles of right of way, it's extremely difficult to close all the loopholes," Rees said. "It's almost impossible."
Most local jurisdictions don't have tens of thousands of dollars to spend and don't even keep track of how many encroachments take place every year.
Montgomery County catches from 50 to 100 encroachments a year, said Michele Rosenfeld, associate general counsel for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. In 1997, Howard County officials stopped about 300 encroachments. But in 1998, they caught only six.
It isn't because people all of a sudden started behaving in 1998, said McNamara. The drop was "certainly due to workload and not enough time," he said.
Most counties do not even keep such statistics.
"The intent is not to go out and be grass police or stream police," said McNamara. "It's to stop the environmental damage that's being done."