Long-brewing legislation to create a national park on the Chesapeake Bay was finally introduced Thursday, and after months of public comment, there’s an interesting new goal.

The National Park Service office in Annapolis, which would oversee the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, would be required to study each site and develop plans to prevent traffic from overwhelming surrounding roads, according to the legislation introduced in Congress today. That’s in addition to the broader goals of improving public access, protecting places as diverse as unspoiled beaches and historic homes in city centers, improving environmental quality and spurring economic growth.

Sponsored by U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, the Chesapeake National Recreation Area Act has a pack of co-sponsors. Fellow Maryland Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin, both Virginia senators and 11 members of the House of Representatives have signed on. But only one Republican so far has added his name to the bill: Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia.

The recreation area would knit together a network of cultural and environmental landmarks that one day could stretch across the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake watershed into a single unit under the administration of the National Park Service office in Annapolis. It is equivalent to a national park in the way it provides protection and support; it would differ because of the area and type of sites it would protect.

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In an interview Wednesday, Van Hollen and Sarbanes said the most significant change from draft legislation made public in November is a response to comments from people living near one of the four initial sites — three smaller ones located in and around Annapolis, plus miles of pristine beach near the Fort Monroe National monument in Hampton, Virginia, at the mouth of the bay.

“It directs the National Park Service to come up with traffic mitigation plans,” Van Hollen said. “It directs them to look at things like water and trail access to some of the CNRA sites.”

Van Hollen and Sarbanes have been sorting through some 1,700 comments on the plan, the result of outreach Sarbanes called almost unheard of before legislation is submitted to Congress. Van Hollen said the response from Marylanders was overwhelmingly supportive, but said the No. 1 concern was the impact of traffic.

Three of the initially proposed sites in and around Annapolis sites are: Whitehall Manor, a Colonial mansion on the National Register of Historic Places; the Burtis House, a 19th-century waterman’s house at City Dock; and the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, a 148-year-old, screw-pile lighthouse owned by the City of Annapolis and maintained by volunteers.

Sarbanes said the decision to limit the legislation to four sites was intentional to keep the project simple. Other sites can be added later, but only voluntarily.

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The park service would take over administration and sustainability efforts, but not necessarily ownership. It already oversees 40 recreation areas that connect locations separated by water while providing access to fishing, swimming, boating and other activities.

“I don’t think there’s a particular timetable as to adding additional sites, but I do think it will become a kind of organic process,” Sarbanes said.

While the reaction in Annapolis has been positive, residents who live across the Severn River near Whitehall Manor have expressed opposition, talking to Sarbanes directly in a spring community meeting. Many are already trapped by heavy traffic at the nearby Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

“I won’t know if it will satisfy the criticism. That depends on what the National Park Service determines is the way to mitigate traffic,” said County Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, a two-term Republican whose Anne Arundel County district includes the area. “The requirement that they are required to do something will calm some concerns.”

One objective of the park is to put the Chesapeake Bay on par with other natural treasures, such as the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona. It also will involve the National Park Service more deeply in environmental restoration efforts, improve public access to the bay and provide federal resources to sustain the sites.

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“It’s a combination of goals and certainly expanding public access and public enjoyment of the bay is one of them,” Van Hollen said. “But the reason it’s so important to have the National Park Service anchor this effort is because they have a proven record of being able to tell the stories of these iconic national treasures. And the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure.”

The National Park Service would establish a visitors center and headquarters for the park at the Burtis House, but also could expand its presence in Annapolis and create a visitors center in Virginia.

Annapolis is about to renovate City Dock because of increased flooding, a move that includes moving the Burtis House and making the area more appealing to visitors. A coalition of tourism groups is also studying the feasibility of a ferry service connecting communities around the bay.

There already is competition for space at City Dock, the waterfront public square of Maryland’s state capital. Sarbanes acknowledged the park would likely mean more people.

“I think those people are coming anyway because there’s a lot about the area and Annapolis that is very appealing,” Sarbanes said. “Having the park service in the mix, at the table when you have those sorts of challenges, is a plus not a minus.”

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The Chesapeake National Recreation Area Act does not include specified funding but would require money for management and acquisitions to be included in the park service annual budget, which is approved by Congress as part of Interior Department spending. The park service would be required to create an advisory committee and, within three years, a management plan for the area.

The legislation also permanently reauthorizes the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, a collection of trails including one that traces the path of early English explorer John Smith, and provides $6 million in annual funding.

The idea of creating a Chesapeake national park originated in the 1980s when Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer suggested it in an op-ed published in The Capital, the daily newspaper of Annapolis.

The fruition of the idea would come at a pivotal moment for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, providing more federal resources just as it has become clear that goals set in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement won’t be met. Dozens of environmental groups have endorsed the project and worked on its creation.

Keisha Sedlacek, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the park explicitly expanded to the entire watershed at the recommendation of the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

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“We had coalition partners in Pennsylvania and New York who were like, ‘What if we want to participate in creating this new unit of the National Park System?’” said Sedlacek, who participated in a large workgroup that helped create the plan.

The political chances of getting the legislation through a divided Congress are improved by the inclusion of a Republican representative. Wittman is known for being focused on Chesapeake Bay issues and also served on the working group.

“The health of the Chesapeake Bay is not a partisan issue,” he said in a statement released by his office. “Virginia’s First District and my colleagues’ districts rely on a safe and healthy Bay, and I’m proud to work across the aisle to introduce legislation that promotes accessibility, sustainability, and stewardship of the Bay watershed.”

Maryland’s only Republican member of Congress, however, has yet to say whether he will support the proposal. Van Hollen said he has spoken with Rep. Andy Harris about the legislation as recently as this week.

“Currently, I am focused on gathering feedback from my constituents, including our watermen, to ensure that their input and concerns are considered,” Harris said in a statement released by his office.

If the climate in Washington does make prospects for this legislation fuzzy, it’s possible authorizing language could be added to another piece of legislation more likely to pass.

“I am excited that they’re getting this out there and that we can start educating [congressional] offices about it,” Sedlacek said. “I hope that we find a vehicle that we can attach this to and get this done. But I also want to be realistic that it may not happen in the 118th Congress. This may be a longer haul than we thought.”

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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