Rick Anthony’s relationship with his neighbors changed the minute he became Anne Arundel County’s parks and rec director in 2010.
The reason was Beverly Beach, once a segregated Chesapeake Bay resort 30 minutes south of Annapolis. Neighbors absolutely did not want it to be opened to the public, he said, and they started saying things to his family, including his young son.
“We had to start going to the grocery store in Annapolis,” Anthony said.
Four decades after Anne Arundel bought the shuttered symbol of racism for $3.4 million, Anthony on Friday joined County Executive Steuart Pittman to celebrate its rebirth as Beverly Triton Nature Park.
The ceremony capped 40 years of struggle involving historic forces that continue to limit public access to the bay, difficult negotiations with neighbors, and disagreements over the best way to balance the use of 340 acres of remarkable beauty.
“There was an aggressive effort to keep it closed,” Pittman told a gathering of kayakers, county officials, area residents and Anthony’s family.
Beverly Triton Nature Park represents a victory in efforts to widen public access to the bay and its tributaries. An estimated 98% of the bay shoreline is privately owned. It is a fight that is both specific to the Annapolis area, with its narrow peninsulas filled with suburban neighborhoods, and a symbol for the wider region.
There are kids in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania who have never spent time on the bay and have little reason to support efforts to restore its health. If they could see the sweeping blue horizon from the golden sands of Beverly Triton, they would understand the importance of saving the waterway.
“If we do that, we might have a chance,” said Michael Lofton, a member of the recreation advisory board and longtime water access advocate. “If we don’t, failure awaits.”
Beverly Beach opened as part of a real estate scheme by Baltimore attorney Edgar Kalb. His 1940s-era plan was to sell thousands of homes centered on a resort with a sandy beach. He added slots and bingo, and newspaper accounts say it attracted busloads of people from Washington and Baltimore.
But Maryland of that era was segregated, and although Kalb hired Black men and women, he refused them admission to the resort or the homes — a barrier he erected for other groups he disliked as well. When legal segregation ended in the 1960s, Kalb closed his resort rather than integrate it.
In 1984, then-County Executive James Lighthizer persuaded the County Council to pay the bank that foreclosed on the land $3.25 million, about the same time he bought another 340 acres across the South River for what is now Quiet Waters Park.
At Friday’s ceremony, several people said the purchase was primarily to prevent the spread of development. It had only been a few years since the county successfully fought off a lawsuit to force adding sewer service to the area and open it to a wave of home construction.
Lighthizer was clear about his vision. He envisioned the beach as the first county park to permit swimming.
“I’ve made a concerted effort to buy as much waterfront land as possible,” Lighthizer told The Washington Post at the time. “It’s just a beautiful piece of land. It will make a great recreational facility.”
Just not soon.
The county poured millions into Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, opening it as a network of trails, pavilions, canoe and kayak rentals and picnic areas — but not as a place for swimming.
It bought another former segregated resort in 2006, a spot at the mouth of the Patapsco River in Pasadena better known for illicit late-night parties than as a swimming spot. Anthony oversaw improvements at Fort Smallwood Park over 12 years as head of recreation and parks. It took a decade to open it to swimming.
Then came “open days” at Mayo Beach Park near Beverly Triton, another resort bought in 1976 but limited to private party rentals for decades. Now, the county offers passes for swimming and picnicking on 30 select days between the Memorial and Labor Day weekends.
Demand is certainly there. Sandy Point State Park, located at the western foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, swells each summer with families looking for any place to swim without having to make the long drive to Atlantic coast beaches 100 miles away. Cars back up for miles at the entrance on weekends.
Through all this, Beverly Beach sat idle. There were technical reasons, like limited road access and the lack of a sewer system. Advocates always suspected something more.
“I was two or three years into working on Beverly Triton and public water access when I realized that an effective way of not desegregating public swimming beaches is to not have any public swimming beaches,” said Lisa Arrasmith, another longtime water access advocate. “I’m white and was raised in Iowa, and that made me slow to realize what I’d gotten into.”
Race was a factor. Starting in the 1960s, development concentrated on Anne Arundel’s ample shoreline — creating communities with private marinas and beaches largely for white families. That depressed the demand for public beaches by muting the one voice powerful enough to reach elected officials: white suburban voters focused on quality of life.
And it created a counter-force, people on crowded peninsulas focused on blocking anything that added more people or traffic.
NPR investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan was reporting on Anne Arundel for The Baltimore Sun in 1998 when she joined a long line of journalists who discovered the story of Beverly Beach.
“I remember being told you had to be careful — someone would throw you out,” she said. “And it was public land.”
Journalists such as Sullivan at The Sun and Rachael Pacella and E.B. Furgurson III at the Capital Gazette kept the promise of Beverly Beach alive. County Executive Steve Schuh started work on a plan to finally open the park in 2016, but then he lost to Pittman two years later.
Pittman shifted the focus to a nature preserve on the interior, even briefly renaming it Beverly Triton Nature Area. It turns out that two years after Lighthizer had acquired the land, the county leased the beach to a neighboring community for $1 per year.
Pittman reversed course under pressure from the state, advocates and the news media and ended the lease. On Friday, he led the cheers for the long-delayed opening. Officially, Beverly Triton still is waiting for its first swimmers in decades.
The county health department, which tests water quality at scores of private and public beaches during swimming season, won’t give the OK until a bathhouse is completed in the next few weeks. Even when it signs off, there are no plans for lifeguards. And the county will limit crowds with weekend and holiday passes during the busiest days of summer.
County officials are realistic, though. The stinging jellyfish of August are the only thing that will keep people out of the water.
“People have always swum here, and they always will,” said Jessica Leyes, who succeeded Anthony as recreation and parks director and led negotiations with neighbors frightened by the prospect of being swamped with visitors.
Getting the park open included $6 million worth of improvements, including a parking lot and gatehouse, a pavilion, a playground, a fishing pier and erosion control measures. There is a home for a resident park ranger.
A network of deeply wooded trails connects the various points with the park’s centerpiece, more than a mile of gently curving strand facing northeast toward the bay, protected from erosion by a series of stone breakwaters. There are plans to enlarge the beach as well.
As he was leaving Friday’s event, Pittman said he was focused on expanding water access through the proposed Chesapeake National Recreation Area. If created by Congress, it would connect sites around the bay under the National Park Service. Three of the four first spots are around Annapolis, although none would allow swimming.
Then there is Greenbury Point, a 250-acre Navy environmental area where the future is up for discussion, and Holly Beach Farm. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation wants someone else to oversee those 300 acres of woods, fields and shoreline.
All this is in the past for Anthony, who took a job as recreation director in Bakersfield, California. Or is it? They fight over water in the West, too. Farmers, and urban planners and businesses all want their share as rivers dry and rain patterns shift in a changing climate.
Anthony was quickly visited in his new job by another group ready to push for access — people ready to defend the recreational value of water.
“I just laughed and said, ‘I can’t get away from it,’ ” Anthony said.