Let’s take a walk to the water for Earth Day.

There’s a trail hidden in Eastport, a charming and expensive Annapolis neighborhood. It’s on Boucher Avenue, which may or may not be named for the Tory rector of St. Anne’s Church who escaped a crowd of angry rebels by holding their leader at pistol-point while galloping away on his horse.

Pink flowering trees obscure the entrance. There’s no sign, except for one notifying you that the all-seeing eye of Neighborhood Watch protects this spot.

Thread the narrow path between $2 million homes, assorted cedars, ornamental shrubs and wooden stakes topped by bright pink survey markers until you reach a tall, green electrical junction box. You’ll recognize it by the words: “No Trespassing. Blue Heron Cove Residents Only.”

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We’ve arrived. This is Wells Cove.

It’s a tiny front in the ongoing fight over public access to the water around Annapolis, with a 30-year history of legal wrangling involving rights of way, easements and deeds, the Board of Port Wardens, some of the city’s best-known attorneys, money, and a pair of determined women.

“The water is what makes Annapolis what it is, right? The Chesapeake Bay, Spa Creek, Back Creek, all of those are really important to enjoying life,” said Jessica Pachler, one of two neighbors who went to court to protect access to Wells Cove.

“If you take that away from a large swath of people, particularly of middle- and lower-income people, that’s really doing a disservice and injustice to them.”

For the moment, Pachler and Karen Jennings have won the right to keep Wells Cove open to the public. And after all the negotiations, lawsuits and angst, when you head to this obscure 5-foot-wide corridor on Earth Day, here’s what you’ll find.

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A storm drain. It’s not even the nicest storm drain I’ve ever seen.

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You might be able to launch a kayak or a paddleboard if you’re nimble, but you certainly wouldn’t want to do it after a heavy rain floods the drain with a lot of very dirty, fast-moving water.

“You definitely would not want to be in a kayak after it rains,” said Mitchelle Stephenson, a city spokesperson. “With the water coming out of there, I wouldn’t want to be.”

Not every dispute over water is a grand thing. Across the Severn River, there’s a much bigger feud brewing over the proposed Chesapeake National Recreation Area. The small family foundation that owns Whitehall, a National Historic Landmark, is interested in adding the waterfront Georgian mansion to the network of sites around the bay.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, one of the authors of the plan, is headed out there next week on a listening tour. He might want to take notice that organizers of the meeting have dubbed the subject with an alternate name: “Broadneck National Park.”

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This little fight in Annapolis, though, is interesting, because it is almost purely about the principle.

The entrance to Wells Cove off Boucher Avenue in Annapolis is hidden between $2 million homes and marked by a Neighborhood Watch sign.

This spot is one of two places to get in Spa Creek between the Eastport Bridge and Truxtun Park, but the other is Hawkins Cove. It is too shallow even for kayakers — essentially a dock overlooking a mud puddle.

Pachler says she and her family walk the three blocks from her house to Wells Cove regularly. They’ve used it to launch kayaks, but could also grab a water taxi there or even jump in for a swim.

I wouldn’t recommend it.

This fight dates back to the 1980s, when working-class Eastport was making way for million-dollar waterfront homes and condos, mixed in with small houses and the deepest concentration of public housing in Annapolis.

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According to the lawsuit filed by Pachler, Jennings and their attorney, Joseph Donohue, the developers of the Blue Heron Cove condos signed an agreement giving the city that 5-foot path and a slightly wider area at the edge of Wells Cove. Nobody really used it, and the path was quickly forgotten by almost everyone.

Years later, the Board of Port Wardens — the obscure body that approves piers, docks and other waterfront features in the city — discovered while considering an application for a floating dock that no one at City Hall transferred the deed to the path.

Pretty soon, no trespassing signs went up. Pachler and Jennings noticed.

Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley and City Attorney Michael Lyles negotiated a new deal in 2021 with Blue Heron Cove attorney C. Edward Hartman III that nailed down the access ― without rights to the water.

Let’s pause for just a second here to talk about these three attorneys. Donohue has been eating Lyle’s lunch legally for the past few years, winning an almost $1 million settlement over conditions in public housing in Annapolis. He’s on track with another lawsuit some officials fear could bankrupt the city.

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Hartman is the scion of a famous Annapolis family. His father was co-founder of the Annapolis boat shows, and his sister operated cruise boats and water taxis in the city for years. As a lawyer, he sued the county over COVID restrictions, and as commodore of the Annapolis Yacht Club he used its newsletter to poke fun at a pandemic that killed 1,200 county residents.

In March, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Morris issued a summary judgment for Pachler and Jennings, saying the original agreement between the city and the developers of Blue Heron Cove was clear.

Water access includes the water, not just the view.

“The people who were doing the development at that time, as well as the city, recognized that as Annapolis got developed it was important to keep the public’s access to the water,” Pachler said. “The City Code and the resolution and eventually the easement were created to protect the very thing that makes Annapolis unique and what it is.”

Hartman has said he plans to appeal.

Stephenson, the city spokesperson, said the city will pave the path with oyster shell. It’s a nice bay-centric touch that should make it a little easier to find. There’s a bench in design that will create some kind of overlook, but nothing to ease getting a kayak over that storm drain.

When I went in search of Wells Cove, I met Alan Bellack while he was walking his new springer spaniel pup.

“Are you a lawyer or a city official?” he asked as I looked for the opening of the path.

Bellack has lived around the corner since 1999. He checked when he bought the house that the dock at the bottom of the backyard was clearly titled. He docks his 34-foot trawler there now.

He’s no fan of Pachler’s activism on behalf of public access. He doesn’t think the condo owners represented by Hartman set out to take public property and that the agreement negotiated with Buckley and Lyles should stand.

Now he’s concerned about who will try out the little spot on the water, which is legally open only from dawn to dusk.

“I am worried about people who don’t know about the water putting themselves in danger,” Bellack said.

Most of all, he’s dreading more kayakers and paddleboarders in his quiet little corner of Annapolis waterfront. Low to the water and highly maneuverable, these tiny boats often go “all zig-zag” across the creeks and coves, he said.

When you’re piloting a trawler — perfect for cruises with the grandkids, he said — a tight spot like Wells Cove makes the potential for conflict great, even at the 6-knot speed limit.

“Most boaters who are on Spa Creek are worried about more kayakers and paddleboarders because they’ve all had problems,” Bellack said.

It’s Earth Day on Saturday, so it’s a good time to think about saving the planet and who gets to enjoy its beauty. It’s a good day to visit Wells Cove.

Because the fight over water continues tomorrow.

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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