Everyone in Annapolis wants more access to the Chesapeake Bay, right? Wrong.

Residents concerned about visitors and traffic are increasingly pushing back against efforts to open up pieces of waterfront to the public

Published 3/7/2023 5:30 a.m. EST, Updated 3/13/2023 10:58 p.m. EDT

Agnes Lorentzen, center, visted the Greenbury Point Nature Center to demonstrate opposition to a golf course discussed for the site. The 100-year-old Virginia woman is the mother of the late founder of the center, Tina Lorentzen Carlson.

Agnes Lorentzen returned to Greenbury Point the other day, a 100-year-old mother checking on the lasting legacy of her daughter.

Starting in 1989, Tina Lorentzen Carlson served as the natural resources manager at the Naval Academy and developed the Greenbury Point Nature Center across the Severn River. She died in 2007.

Two weeks ago, her mother wandered around the center’s taxidermy displays, maps and other exhibits, curated to provide a glimpse into the 280-acre conservation area just outside the door.

Agnes came from Virginia, where she lives with another daughter, to talk about what she called a threat to her daughter’s work. The Naval Academy Athletic Association proposed a golf course on the land last year. The idea was to expand from the existing course into a highly prized, somewhat wild space jutting into the Chesapeake Bay.

“I was flabbergasted when I heard of the proposal,” Lorentzen said. “I was dumbfounded that it even got this far.”

Right now, there is no official proposal. NAAA’s pitch to the Navy, which owns the land near Annapolis, stalled last year after environmentalists and others who cherish its trails and vistas convinced Anne Arundel County to seek control of the peninsula for a county park.

The fight over Greenbury Point, at times angry and sharp, is far from over. And it is not the only one. Similar clashes are erupting across the Annapolis area. I can think of nowhere else on the bay where this is happening.

“So much of the edges of the Chesapeake Bay are held in private ownership, and there’s a lot of interest in making sure that anybody can get access to the bay,” said Hillary Falk, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “I think it’s just part of a real change that we’ve seen, just in the last 10 years.”

On the Severn River, there’s also a conflict over Holly Beach Farm, just across Whitehall Bay from Greenbury Point. The foundation resisted pressure to open its mostly private preserve to the wider public for 20 years, but under Falk’s new leadership, it is now seeking a “new steward” for the 300 acres of meadows, enormous trees and fragile shorelines.

“We want to find a way to transfer the property with great respect and consideration of concerns by the community,” she said. “We are at the very beginning of that process.”

In Annapolis, a city, state and federal partnership saved a 5-acre remnant of a historic Black resort as a bayfront park. Now, the city is using federal funding to develop a plan for maximizing public access at more than 30 spots on local creeks.

On the South River, the Chesapeake Conservancy arranged the donation of 14 waterfront acres to Quiet Waters Park, and the county is set to reopen a renovated Beverly Triton Nature Area this spring after wresting back control of seven additional waterfront acres from neighbors. Then it will turn to a new master plan for South River Farm Park next door.

To the north on the Magothy River, the county has unveiled plans at Beechwood Park for a third county boat ramp.

The point at Quiet Waters Reserve offers an expansive view of the South River and the Chesapeake Bay. A plan for an office building at the park property was dropped this week by Chesapeake Conservancy.

Perhaps most important of all is the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, a proposed addition to the National Park System that would link cultural and environmental assets around the watershed. If U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen wins approval for the idea, it would center the network of sites, some under separate ownership, on Annapolis.

In almost every instance, these proposals have sparked concern and, in some cases, angry backlashes. The details vary, but the common refrain is opposition to more people, more development and, most of all, more cars.

When the idea of opening Holly Beach Farm to more people resurfaced in 2021, residents of surrounding communities on the peninsula complained they already were trapped by heavy traffic on U.S. 50 and the nearby Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Holly Beach Farm, 300 acres on the Chesapeake Bay, includes massive tree species. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is seeking a "new steward" for the land after 20 years of keeping it largely closed to the public

Now that concern has shifted to plans for Whitehall, a Georgian plantation house built by one of the last English governors of Maryland in 1764. It is located on 110 acres across a quiet creek from Holly Beach Farm. The small family foundation that owns the National Historic Landmark hosts weddings there to keep it afloat and hopes inclusion in the recreation area will help it maintain it.

After County Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler voiced concerns on social media about traffic last month, many of her constituents chimed in to tell Van Hollen they oppose the idea. The senator is collecting public comment on the proposal until Monday. Fiedler estimated the community is split 70-30 against the idea.

“It is important to note that there is a difference between total opposition and expressing concerns that could alter the fine details of the bill to address the very topics presented during a public comment period,” she wrote last week.

After I wrote in October about the Chesapeake Conservancy’s plan to put a small office building on 2 acres in the addition to Quiet Waters Park, the reaction was so strong that the nonprofit dropped the idea. Now the county has delayed plans for trails and bathrooms on the land because the conservancy was going to pay for them. It may even close public access because of vandalism.

Even Elktonia Carr’s Beach — hailed as a preservation of Black History — began as a fight. Mayor Gavin Buckley took the idea of a park to neighbors upset about a proposal for townhouses on the land.

Shortly after the city took ownership of Carr's Elktonia Beach park, it put up no swimming signs. Development of the park is expect to take a few years.

There are common elements to these fights. They all take place on peninsulas, which present unique congestion problems. Mayo Peninsula residents worry about being trapped by traffic to Beverly Triton, just as Broadneck Peninsula residents express a similar concern about Whitehall.

They all involve misinformation, sometimes by those proposing a change and sometimes by those opposed to it.

When opponents of the golf course idea at Greenbury Point recently noticed several acres of brush had been cleared, they were so suspicious they suggested the Navy might be violating environmental laws. Turns out, it was a state-approved effort to clear invasive vines from choking out native plants.

Wendy O’Sullivan, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Office, suspects the source of tensions may be insufficient efforts to listen to those affected by plans to create water access spots. She doesn’t think the park proposal itself is driving it. ”This was all happening well before that,” she said.

County Executive Steuart Pittman, chastised last year for championing expanded access to Holly Beach Farm without talking to neighbors first, is about to unveil a plan for Greenbury Point. The NAAA, as well, intends to submit a formal proposal.

The Navy has said it is not considering changes, for now. It is seeking permission to shut area waterways when its gun range is active.

So why Annapolis? Why is all this happening here?

Part of the reason may be that the city is at the center of efforts to preserve the Chesapeake, home to state and federal agencies as well as dozens of environmental nonprofits.

Part of it is history. When the late Phil Merrill bought the local newspaper in the 1960s, he made access to the bay a cause that continued for 50 years. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters in Annapolis is named for him.

And part of it is grassroots work. The Anne Arundel Water Access Committee has for years worked to increase the number of kayak put-ins and boat ramps on the county’s 500-plus miles of shoreline. Each of the major Anne Arundel rivers has its own advocacy group.

Together, these efforts have planted the goal of more public access in the collective consciousness of Annapolis.

There’s this figure, too: that 98% of the Chesapeake shoreline is in private hands.

The bay foundation, in partnership with others, is computer mapping public access on the bay. When it releases results in the spring, maybe there will be evidence that all this fighting has resulted in progress.

Maybe more than 2% will belong to all of us.

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