Cecil County Exec Vows Not to Abandon Earleville Boat Ramp and Park; Standing Room Crowd in Cecilton Applauds Decision
Cecil County Executive Tari Moore told a standing room only crowd of about 200 citizens Tuesday evening that her administration will not abandon the Stemmer’s Run boat ramp in Earleville and she will seek state grant funds to build a breakwater, at an unknown cost, in the adjacent Elk River to protect the ramp.
It was a public about-face from the earlier presentation to the County Council by her administration that it was considering not renewing a free lease with the state that expires in December. Clyde VanDyke, the county parks and recreation director, had said he was reluctant to spend the $5,000 currently spent per year to mow grassy areas near the ramps, pier and parking lot.
After an outpouring of support for continued operations of the boat ramp from local residents and boaters for one of only three public ramps operated by the county, County Council members said they had been privately assured that the ramp would remain open and the lease renewed. But the county administration did not provide a public statement to that effect, and scheduled the meeting for Tuesday evening at the Parklands community meeting room in Cecilton, after moving the site from the tiny children’s storytime room at the nearby library.
“We have determined that this asset is an important asset to this community,” Moore said, with the standing room crowd breaking into applause. She said she was now looking at ways to “make it better,” and said she was looking at reviving a 15-year-old state proposal to dredge the Elk River and install a “breakwater” to protect the site from ice damage and silting.
However, under questioning by Cecil Times, Moore said she did not know how much such a breakwater would cost and whether current environmental regulations would allow such dredging and construction in the Critical Area on which the site is located, at the convergence of the Elk River and the Chesapeake Bay. A design sketch for a breakwater presented at the session came from a 15-year old state letter to the county.
County administrator Al Wein said the county could apply for a state grant in Fiscal 2018. Moore said the county would “shepherd this through.”
With no current cost estimate available, or a breakdown of any potential county matching funds such a project might require, it was unclear whether the breakwater was fiscally feasible both from a state and county budget perspective. But by Fiscal 2018 Moore will no longer be in office, after she recently announced she will not seek re-election in the 2016 elections.
The county currently has a free sub-lease for the site from the state Department of Natural Resources, which in turn leases the site from its owner, the US Army Corps of Engineers. Corps officials previously told Cecil Times they would not pay any costs of a breakwater, would not do the dredging work in the river, and that a breakwater construction project was not relevant to the agency’s “mission.”
Moore said a key factor in the failure of the breakwater idea 15 years ago was that the adjacent Pearce Creek dredge spoil dumpsite was closed to further deposits at the time and there was nowhere to put the spoil. She said Corps officials now would allow riverbed spoils dredged by someone else to be deposited on their Pearce Creek site.
However, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) only agreed last year to issue a water quality permit for the site for shipping channel dredge spoils and did not envision or specifically allow use of the Pearce Creek site owned by the Corps for any other deposited material, such as a breakwater project. And that permit was conditioned upon government-paid construction of an estimated $14 million water pipeline from the town of Cecilton to provide clean, safe water to three area communities whose drinking water wells were polluted by the dumpsite. The Maryland Port Administration is picking up the costs for the water pipeline, in return for getting approval for a site to dump dredge spoil to keep key shipping channels open on the nearby Chesapeake Bay. The pipeline has not yet begun construction so the MDE permit is not yet in force.
The 15-year-old proposal calculated the breakwater would consume from 1 to 1.5 acres of dumpsite space and there was no mention at the public meeting of whether the MPA would be willing to go along with reducing the available area at Pearce Creek for deposits of spoil it considers crucial to the future of the Port of Baltimore and for which it has fronted multi-millions in order to get the MDE permit. Nor was there any discussion by county officials of whether MDE would go along with the breakwater spoils proposal as part of its water quality permit for renewed Corps dumping at the Pearce Creek site. The county is not named on the MDE permit.
Meanwhile, Moore’s announcement early in the meeting that the county would not abandon the Stemmer’s Run waterfront park and boat ramp diffused much of the anger that was evident in the room before the meeting began. But some area residents were still upset that the proposal had even been made and criticized VanDyke’s handling and maintenance of the facility.
Bruce Hemphill, a nearby Earleville resident who said he walks his dogs every day at the site, said that he knew from personal experience that the county parks department had not mowed the area at all in July and August. That first-hand report runs counter to VanDyke’s comment after a Council meeting that the site was mowed twice a month in the current fiscal year. And Hemphill said there was no trash receptacle or cleanups by the county, so local residents engaged in “self-help” by bringing trash bags and cleaning up the area.
VanDyke responded that he was short-staffed and he would “get to the bottom” of the problems.
“It’s a shame it had to come to this,” said Harold McCannick. He noted the large crowd in the room, which he said was larger than at most County Council meetings. “We need more ramps,” he said, not fewer.
“This was probably never going to have happened,” said County Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R-3) He said that a resolution had been introduced on the potential abandonment of the boat ramp and “it needed our approval.” In fact, a bill or resolution had not been introduced to the Council and if the county administration had simply allowed the lease to expire, it would not have required Council action. However, if the Council had wanted to take a pro-active posture, it might have sought legal advice on whether the Council could have signed a lease on its own without the executive’s support.
But Schneckenburger’s point— that public opposition to abandonment of the ramp and park was strong and the Council did not support the idea— was well taken. No Council members voiced public support for the original administration proposal and privately all of them voiced opposition.
Also attending the meeting was Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1), in whose district the boat ramp/ park is located. He told Cecil Times that while he welcomed Moore’s admission that the facility was an important “asset,” he said it was a bad idea for the county to have proposed giving it up in the first place. He said he welcomed Moore’s “reversal of opinion on this.”