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A safe harbor for watermen

The Baltimore Sun

CRISFIELD --For years, Sam Matthews and three dozen other watermen have docked their sturdy wood work boats in the town marina here along the Little Annemessex River.

But with pricey high-rise condos and townhouse developments sprouting all around the waterfront, local crabbers and oystermen are worried they might be pushed out to accommodate the pleasure boats of newcomers.

"This harbor is the only place a waterman can go anymore," says Matthews, 63, who was readying the Sassy Lady for another season tending the 400 crab pots he drops in the waters of Tangier Sound. "If you look all over the bay, you can't find another place like this anymore."

Five years into the building boom that has permanently changed Crisfield's skyline, city officials have been working on a comprehensive plan that will be a blueprint for growth and redevelopment. Folks like Matthews are worried the process could put the future of the Small Boat Harbor in jeopardy. But leaders in this tiny city of 2,700 say they intend to preserve the heritage of a place that once billed itself as the "Seafood Capital of the World."

"We have singled out the boat harbor as something we need to save at all costs," says Steve Marshall, the Planning Commission chairman, who spent 18 months helping craft the new plan. "I'm all for progress, but I think most people would admit we've made some mistakes with development. We've got to think of our own history. It was watermen who built this town."

It was watermen and the railroad, which arrived in the 1850s, says Philip Goldsborough, an amateur historian who sits on the board of the Crisfield Heritage Foundation, which owns and operates three museums.

In its heyday, says Goldsborough, Crisfield was home to more than 30 seafood packing houses that every day shipped three train cars of seafood, mostly oysters, from the commercial waterfront that today is the Depot - the hub for a fleet of passenger, supply and mail boats running daily to the island communities of Smith Island and Tangier, Va.

"We're trying to preserve our heritage," Goldsborough says. "Yes, we need to protect our watermen. ... The trouble is, we have to fix our problem at the Small Boat Harbor."

The problem is that nearly half of the harbor's slips already are owned by people who aren't working watermen. Goldsborough and others say they worry that the tentative plans for restricting the marina to watermen might hinder preservation efforts by jostling the peculiar ownership arrangement established when the commercial harbor was created for them nearly 60 years ago.

The harbor was dredged in 1948 by the Army Corps of Engineers for $45,000, on land donated by Wellington Tawes, brother of former Gov. J. Millard Tawes.

The city was given a 50-foot easement around the harbor. Watermen were allowed to build their own docks and piers, and some built shanties for storing equipment or shedding soft-shell crabs.

The loose arrangement means the city owns the land, while about 35 watermen, along with some pleasure boat owners and a handful of charter fishing guides, own the docks where they tie up. Slip owners have no deeds, though many bought their slips with simple bills of sale.

Some have built shanties that encroach on city property, or they routinely stack crab pots on adjacent private property.

The slip owners pay real estate taxes based on the assessed value of their piers. The city issues access permits at no charge to owners. City property that rims the harbor is exempt from the state's critical-area environmental rules.

If the city restricts the harbor to working watermen, no one seems sure how to exclude others who own slips or rent them.

Jody Tull, a 32-year-old waterman who bought his slip from another waterman - sans deed - six years ago, has worked the past couple of weeks outfitting his boat, the 34-foot Courtney Paige.

A big part of the job has been painting the floats that will mark the underwater location of more than 600 crab pots. Tull paints everything a distinctive maroon and gold, the colors of the Washington Redskins, his favorite football team.

"It's nice they're talking about helping us out, but any way you look at it, this is a sticky situation," says Tull. "The way it's always been, we own the dock, the city owns the land. I don't really see how you separate them."

Watermen say Crisfield is one of the few spots on the Chesapeake open to them. The demise of working marinas has made life difficult for watermen who travel throughout the estuary to wherever the catch is good.

"There's not many places on the whole bay where a waterman can even tie up," says Bobby Marshall, 70, who rents his berth in Crisfield so he can dock there during the oyster season. State Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, says he wants to create a task force to recommend ways to preserve Maryland's commercial waterfront.

In Crisfield, dozens of condominiums and townhouses approved by city officials are on hold since the market tailed off in the past year. But the first wave of high-rises crowds the commercial waterfront and dwarfs a declining downtown business district, which awaits its own plan for redevelopment.

A year ago, development pressure fueled the most bitter election campaign in memory. Voters overwhelmingly ousted Crisfield's longtime mayor and two council members who had approved a deal to give exclusive rights to one company to revamp the downtown and develop city-owned property.

City Planning Commission members say the consensus among residents who spoke up at more than a dozen public meetings is to preserve remaining waterfront areas, including the boat harbor.

Goldsborough is among those who worry that as aging watermen get out of the business, they will sell slips to pleasure boat owners or others who don't earn their living on the water.

For the time being, more than 900 slips are available at private marinas and the state-owned Somers Cove Marina - a site coveted by developers, but which Crisfield officials want to be kept under state management.

Mayor P.J. Purnell, who came into office in June on a promise to provide better long-range planning, says he wants to take a long look at the Small Boat Harbor before making any decisions.

"You sit for years and years, waiting for growth and investment to come to your community," Purnell says. "Then, all the sudden, it's here, and you have no idea it could all happen so fast. We don't want a repeat of that."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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