A Harford County councilman would like the state to consider a ban on swimming at one of the most popular swimming holes in Harford County — Falling Branch at Kilgore Falls in Pylesville.
Councilman Chad Shrodes, who represents the northern tier of the county where the falls are located, said he sent a letter to Mark Belton, the Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources, regarding “numerous issues” at the state-owned parkland that features Maryland’s second highest vertical drop waterfall.
“It’s getting out of control, and I just want our residents to know that I’m on top of it,” Shrodes said during Tuesday night’s County Council meeting.
The Department of Natural Resources is reviewing Shrodes’ Aug. 24 letter and preparing a response, Stephen E. Schatz, director of communications for the state agency said Thursday.
“The department has been and will continue to work collaboratively with the local community and county - and its representatives - to address shared concerns and questions about visitation to the Falling Branch Area,” Schatz wrote in an email.
On its website, DNR has acknowledged the popularity of the 67-acre Falling Branch area that is north of the main Rocks State Park, which is another popular outdoor attraction in Harford County. The two areas are jointly managed as Rocks State Park.
In bold letters, the DNR website proclaims “This area is very popular in late spring, summer and early fall - even on weekdays. Patrons are encouraged to carpool and arrive early. If the lot is full, patrons are encouraged to visit the main portion of Rocks State Park.”
In his letter to Belton, Shrodes says “the obsessive sightseers and park overuse has led to dangerous parking situations, escalating litter problems, harm to the protected natural area and challenges for neighboring residents including trespassing, individuals parking on personal property and unruly weekend traffic.”
Among the means Shrodes suggested to help deter these problems is a ban on swimming in what has, in recent years, become a more and more popular place to swim.
On its website, DNR says visitors “are permitted to wade and swim at their own risk” but “discourages leaping from the falls into the creek, as serious injuries have occurred.”
Shrodes said if swimming were banned, maybe fewer people would make it a daylong destination.
On any given weekend and sometimes during the week, the parking lot designed to accommodate 28 vehicles (about 75 people) is at its capacity and visitors park along surrounding roads and private properties, including St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church, Shrodes wrote in his letter, a copy of which he provided to The Aegis.
Maryland park rangers have been on-site regulating the number of cars in the lot, turning them away when it’s full, according to DNR’s Schatz.
The state, working with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, installed “no parking” signs in recent years along roads and “is strictly enforcing illegal parking and traffic congestion,” Schatz said.
Last year, the state worked with county zoning officials to discontinue unauthorized parking lots in the surrounding neighborhood, where neighbors were charging people to park to visit the state park, “which led to a dramatic and fundamental reduction in illegal parking and visitation during peak times,” he said.
“These efforts and more remain ongoing as we continue conversations with community and county leaders,” Schatz said. “We look forward to a conducive and productive dialogue, and very much appreciate the community's affection and appreciation for the state's natural resources and state parks.”
“We need to do something,” Shrodes said. “We have to stop what is occurring there. And that includes the immense amount of traffic, the swimming — folks are staying there all day long in the summer.”
Shrodes, who got married at Falling Branch 10 years ago, which makes it even more special to him, recalls when he was younger and Kilgore Falls and Falling Branch were “more of a sightseeing-type park.”
“You would go in, take some pictures, enjoy yourself and you’d leave,” Shrodes said. “I and other local residents really no longer enjoy the park like we used to, so we have to join together and we have to stop the activities that are going on out there, plain and simple.”
Social media as well as various tourism guides and articles about places to visit have helped to increase attendance at the park, he said.
“All that has to end, we have to bring our park back,” he said.
The county administration has promoted Kilgore Falls in the past in a social media campaign, the Harford Streams Summer Adventure, but administration spokesperson Cindy Mumby said that shouldn’t have caused the area to be overwhelmed or abused by visitors.
“I think what we promote is responsible visits to the streams and waterways in Harford County, and the Harford Streams Summer Adventure is specifically to promote awareness about the need to protect these precious natural resources,” Mumby said Thursday.
The county’s efforts, she said, are encouraging people to visit the parks, not to leave trash behind or behave inappropriately.
“They’re there to be enjoyed, but at same time everyone has a responsibility to behave responsibly when they’re there there, that includes [obeying] parking signs and picking up after themselves,” Mumby said. “We would hope everyone would follow those rules of civility.”
In addition to a ban on swimming, Shrodes suggested DNR consider bans on smoking, buses, pets and wheeled equipment, such as wagons and handcarts, with signs erected noting such bans.
Because of all the swimming activity, which likely diminishes the water quality, he also suggested routine testing. Falling Branch is a tributary of Deer Creek, northeastern Maryland’s pre-eminent trout stream.
Shrodes said he is working with Del. Andrew Cassilly to create a bill that would allow park service employees to issue citations when necessary. He said he has discussed time limits on parking or online visitation registration, which don’t exist, but could be imposed with the proper signage to notify visitors. Once they’re in place, they could be enforced.
“People staying all day is allowing [other] folks no time to come because there’s nowhere to park,” he said.
Mumby said she didn’t want to comment on Shrodes proposals, since Falling Branch is in a state park.
“But we want to do what we can within our authority so when folks visit this park or any park, they leave it so it promotes enjoyment by the next visitors,” she said.