To Curt Fisher, the issue is simple: Tropical storms and time have filled the bottom of Fox Creek with sand that, if left unabated, will close off the Crownsville-area inlet to the Severn River. The creek, filled with stagnant water from siltation, is, he says, already too dirty for his son to swim in.
"It's dead," said Fisher, who points to reports of little or no dissolved oxygen at seven points along the creek.
Fisher and some of his neighbors in the Herald Harbor community want to dredge a 2 1/2 -foot-deep channel at the mouth of the creek. Dredging would improve water quality by restoring water flow and oxygen to the creek and give boaters access, they say.
But others who live along the waterway - and environmentalists - oppose the plan. They say the dredging would ruin fish and turtle habitat and draw noisy boat traffic to their quiet cove.
The matter landed on the agenda of the state Board of Public Works last week because it involved conflicting recommendations from its own staff, which recommended approval of the dredging, and the Maryland Department of the Environment, which is against it. Gov. Martin O'Malley, who presides over the board with the state treasurer and comptroller, said Wednesday that he needs more time to make up his mind and asked that the issue be put off until another meeting could be scheduled to address the issue. That meeting has been scheduled for 1 p.m. Dec. 15.
Board members seemed amazed Wednesday that the issue has reached the top of state government. They watched presentations that stretched more than an hour, with attorneys on both sides, showing charts, photos and topographical maps.
The issue is emotional for residents. At times, Margaret Martin got choked up as she described why she moved to the headwaters of the creek 10 years ago. She said she sees deer, fox, osprey, blue heron and turtles as she relaxes on her small pier.
"You can fish and canoe and be at one with nature," said Martin, who opposes the dredging plan. "It's what the bay should be, and if it's lost ..."
Her voice trailed off, and she started crying.
The problems started with the subdivision of the 100-plus acre Kyle farm in the late 1990s, said Martin and other opponents of the dredging. Newer residents built "McMansions" on the waterfront and replaced small crabbing piers with recreational piers made for boats that are too large to be going back and forth to the Severn River, Martin said.
Emily Luna, a Fox Creek resident, said she is tired of hearing her neighbors paint a picture of yuppie boaters trying to bring their yachts into Fox Creek. She said she doesn't even own a boat.
"They're twisting it into us being this big, greedy powerboat-loving people who just want to tear [the creek] up," Luna said. "We just don't want to turn it into a stagnant pond where nothing can live in it."
Residents who want the dredging, dubbed Fox Creek Associates on permit applications, pointed out that the homes, and the piers, were built according to accepted covenants and under guidelines and permits issued from the MDE.
They say they've spent at least $100,000 over the past six years for testing, attorneys and other costs to fight for a permit. The dredging would cost $25,000 to $35,000.
The MDE initially approved the dredging in 2006 after Fox Creek Associates agreed to reduce the depth of the proposed channel from 5 feet to 3 feet and reduce the length and width. After public hearings, the MDE reversed its decision.
The issue hinged, according to state officials, on a regulation in the Maryland Tidal Wetlands Act of 1970 that would allow dredging along a historic navigable waterway, as long as it was at least 3 feet deep before 1972. That is when the state finished making maps of waterways.
Officials from both the BPW and the MDE agree that the depth issue is the key point.
MDE officials told O'Malley and the board that there is no scientific data to back up the fact that the mouth of the creek, where the dredging would occur, was ever 3 feet deep. Jay Sakai, director of water management administration for the MDE, told the board that he believes it is less than 2 feet.
Dredging proponents presented evidence of boating guides from the 1960s and 1970s with topographical maps that show a "3" near the inlet. They also point to photos of boats - one with a 4-foot fixed keel - floating in the creek.
One of the boats, owned by Joan Beall's mother, used to go in and out of the channel regularly during the 1960s and early 1970s, Beall told the board. "At low tide, it was above 5 feet of water," said Beall, who now lives in a newer house on the creek.
Opponents of the dredging, which include the Severn River Commission, contend that boaters had to lean their sailboats to the side and come in at high tide to make it into the channel. Janet Clauson, who has owned the property on the northern side of the creek's mouth for two years, said the 3-foot depths marked on early maps are misunderstood.
She said there are two shoals that narrow the mouth of the creek, and the depth there is only 1 to 2 feet. She said she is worried about the creek's habitat and serenity being destroyed by the dredging.
Doldon W. Moore Jr., wetlands administrator for the state Board of Public Works, pointed to the boating guides and photos as credible and recommended that the Board of Public Works approve the dredging and require it be maintained for six years. He was backed up by a decision reached Tuesday by the Army Corps of Engineers to reauthorize dredging at 2 1/2 feet, with 6 inches of leeway.