Opinion: Why is Anne Arundel County pandering to the wishes of a small group, while continuing to ignore the needs and rights of the disabled?

Anne Arundel County is now considering a rowing facility or “community boathouse” at Homeport Farm Park in Edgewater, the deed of which states the park is for passive use.

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Anne Arundel is the same county that has yet to address its thousands of accessibility issues and ADA violations at parks and recreational facilities which make them not accessible for all and in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and in some cases, Program Open Space funding agreements.

According to the federal government, ” The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability just as other civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. The ADA guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, purchase goods and services, and participate in state and local government programs.”

The county finally released a summary of its accessibility audit to me, which confirms thousands of accessibility issues and ADA violations.

In some places, where the county acquired funds from the state’s Program Open Space for parks and recreational facilities, which mandates accessibility for all, the county is also in violation of these funding agreements.

In other words, Anne Arundel County has a lot to fix in order to make its parks and recreational facilities to make them accessible for all – it’s the law.

This should take priority above any wants that people or groups may have – whether it’s a skatepark or “community boathouse.”

Where’s the idea for a skatepark coming from?

Me.

Skateboarding is a sport with a lot of diversity and which doesn’t require a lot of money for entry or continued enjoyment.

Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks (not to be confused with the city of Annapolis) only has a small skate area in a park in Glen Burnie.

Where’s the idea for a “community boathouse” coming from?

The Annapolis Rowing Club, the Annapolis Irish Rowing Club and Annapolis Junior Rowing Association.

Rowing is a sport with a diversity issue. In efforts to make it more diverse, there’s been a lot of talk and some action, but it remains a sport for mostly those that are white.

Rowing with these clubs requires swimming proficiency, as well as transportation and money for entry and continued participation, although some scholarships are available.

Annapolis Rowing Club rents space from a privately owned marina in Edgewater, as does Annapolis Irish Rowing Club. The marina is 1.4 miles from Homeport Farm Park.

Annapolis Junior Rowing Association rents space at Camp Woodlands, a privately owned property off of Riva Road in Annapolis, 2.3 miles from Homeport Farm Park.

Annapolis Rowing Club’s website states, “ARC is a leading group in the search for a community boathouse.  We have formed an organization called PARC (paddling and rowing community) in our search for a boathouse that could be used by rowers, kayakers and SUPS.  We are working with our County Recreation and Parks department, Baylands Consulting, the County school system, kayakers and SUPs.  We are the only surrounding county without a community boathouse yet have more shoreline than any other County in Maryland.  It is important  to share our need for this facility to acquaint more people with the waters in the Bay and  preserve this great resource. Share our need on your social media sites and look for us on our PARC Facebook page.”

For a fact check on Annapolis Rowing Club’s paragraph above, Anne Arundel is not the only surrounding county lacking a “community boathouse” for rowing clubs – Queen Anne’s County does not have one, nor does Howard County.

As for Anne Arundel having more shoreline than any other county in Maryland, that too is false – it falls behind Dorchester, Talbot, Wicomico, St. Mary’s and Somerset.

Regarding Annapolis Rowing Club’s sentence, “It is important to share our need for this facility to acquaint more people with the waters in the Bay and  preserve this great resource,” a boathouse is not a need and sharing a boathouse planned on a public park, paid for with taxpayer dollars – how very benevolent of the Annapolis Rowing Club.

Unlike the ADA, there is no law requiring people/clubs be provided “community boathouses” or property for these boathouses, paid for with taxpayer money.

I talked to Chris Poulsen of the Annapolis Rowing Club who said, “I wished you’d stop saying rowing center rather than boathouse.”

She made a point several times of saying, “community boathouse,” but also said, “to use it, “you’ll have to belong to some group.”

A group like the Annapolis Rowing Club.

The term, paddling and rowing facility, came from Anne Arundel County itself, when it was considering Quiet Waters Park for it – two different locations within Quiet Waters (Loden Pond and Harness Creek). Others have referred to it as a rowing center.

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When this “community boathouse” is called a rowing facility or rowing center, that might give people a preconceived idea who it might be for.

“It’s never been just for rowers – it’s never been this exclusive club,” said Poulsen.

The facts seem to prove otherwise.

A “community boathouse” in the Annapolis/Edgewater area is about money – specifically those that have it.

A 2016 study for Annapolis Rowing Club and Annapolis Junior Rowing Association stated, “the market has more than enough affluent households required to support a full boathouse facility”

Then there’s the sport itself and its relationship to college-bound teens. as well as their parents.

“Crew especially exemplifies how elite colleges tilt admissions toward the affluent,” stated an article in the Chicago Tribune. “In the cutthroat game of college acceptance, an interest in rowing can offer a significant edge. It’s an open secret among some parents.”

Looking at the lack of diversity in junior rowing locally, I spoke to Dorie Thompson, the team administrator for Annapolis Junior Rowing Association.

As of the fall 2021 season, Thompson said Annapolis Junior Rowing Association saw 67 students in 8th grade through 12th grade.

“We have some diversity, not much,” she said.

“We probably have five, non-Caucasian kids,” Thompson said.

The Annapolis Rowing website states, “We have formed an organization called PARC (paddling and rowing community) in our search for a boathouse that could be used by rowers, kayakers and SUPS.”

We know who the rowers are, but who are the kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders (SUPs) advocating for a rowing facility?

According to Poulsen, there are no organized paddling groups of kayakers or SUPs included in those advocating for this “community boathouse,” although did say she’s heard from some paddlers that wanted a boathouse.

Not only are there no organized groups of paddlers advocating for a rowing facility, two large kayak groups have submitted letters to the county expressing opposition for this “community boathouse” at Homeport Farm Park.

The letter from WatersEdge Kayak Club begins, “WatersEdge Kayak Club (WEKC), is a locally based kayak club with over 1800 members, many who live in Anne Arundel County, including me. It was written by WEKC Organizer Gregory S. Pokrywka, MD.

Part of the letter sent to Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks and County Executive Pittman from WatersEdge Kayak Club

Another letter of opposition to a rowing club facility at Homeport Farm Park went to the county from the Chesapeake Paddlers Association (CPA).

It was written by Bill Smith, CPA coordinator and it begins, “(CPA) is a nearly 700-member sea kayaking 501(c)(4) club operating throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. Our focus is on helping the public safely enjoy sea kayaking and the waters of this area.”

Part of letter sent to Anne Arundel County from the Chesapeake Paddlers Association

Continuing the fact check of Annapolis Rowing Club’s paragraph, which also states, “We are working with our County Recreation and Parks department, Baylands Consulting, the County school system, kayakers and SUPS,” the part about the “County school system” also isn’t true, unless “working with” means having “some conversations with” the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) Athletic Office.

“Their folks have had some conversations with our Athletics office, which has expressed general support for broadening recreational and athletic opportunities for those inside and outside of our school system,” stated Bob Mosier, AACPS spokesperson. That’s just a general philosophy of more is better for the community. That said, we don’t offer the sports this initiative would serve and are not involved in discussions about embarking on that. There has been no commitment from AACPS to do anything related to this initiative.”

If a rowing facility or “community boathouse” is not for the public schools and it’s not for these large groups of paddlers, then it would seem it is exclusively for three rowing clubs, despite how some have tried to frame it.

What happened to the idea for the rowing facility at Quiet Waters Park?

“It was NIMBYism – not in my backyard ,” said Poulsen. “There were letters – people thought the environment would be destroyed. It was basically that.”

In other words, Poulsen insists it should be referred to as a “community boathouse,” but when community members said they didn’t want a “community boathouse,” it’s “NIMBYism.”

Does Poulsen consider a boathouse a want or a need?

“I think it’s a need – especially since we’ve all been through COVID – people are outside more,” said Poulsen. “I don’t see that going away.”

Apparently people that are outside “need” a “community boathouse.”

Poulsen did say, “the clubs that are involved would be paying for the boathouse – the county would provide the infrastructure.”

In other words, this rowing facility for a sport with a diversity issue would be put on property paid for by taxpayers.

That doesn’t seem very equitable or inclusive.

A 2019 article in The Capital states, ” Poulsen said connecting people with the water will make them care more about its health.”

“If they’re not on the water, how can they care about the water, ” she said.

That might be construed as presumptuous and entitled.

A lot of people are “not out on the water,” and yet, care about it.

To be fair, I think it’s great when people advocate for things they want or need, including Annapolis Rowing Club and other rowing groups advocating for a boathouse – but I’m not sold on the “community” part of it or the county paying for any of it.

Unlike the ADA, there is no law requiring people/clubs be given rowing centers or boathouses or property for it, paid for with taxpayer money.

A boathouse is a want, not to be confused with a need or a right.

And while the Annapolis Irish Rowing Club is part of the group advocating for a rowing facility, the club president has a different view than Poulsen whether that facility is a want or a need.

“That’s a wish thing,” said Egan Nerich, president of the Annapolis Irish Rowing Club. “We’ve lived without a boathouse – it’s a wish list thing.”

This new Homeport Farm Park idea was relayed to me by Lisa Arrasmith, chairperson of the Public Water Access Committee, a non-government group that advocates for public water access for all.

According to Arrasmith, “The Public Water Access Committee is a broad based group of wet feet activists. We include sea kayakers and fishing kayakers, stand up paddleboarders, anglers, the windsports, trailered boat owners and the people who just want to find a nice beach and go swimming. We are centered in Anne Arundel County and participate in projects around the Bay. We stick together. Our motto is all of us or none of us. No favored classes, no special privileges. We will all get to the water together.”

Arrasmith said it was Jessica Leys, director of Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks, who told her about the feasibility study for Homeport Farm Park in Edgewater as a possible location for this “community boathouse.”

She provided an email sent to her from Leys that confirms the county is considering Homeport Farm Park.

The email from Leys states, “We are looking for a public amenity to serve the rowing population of Anne Arundel County, not specifically the Annapolis Rowing Club. I have met with the Junior Rowers who are currently leasing private property and have had several conversations with the BOE regarding public rowing programs. This may be the same property but a very different model/approach to providing water access. 

Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works (DPW) has asked for a contractor to perform a feasibility study, including three alternate concept plans and preliminary cost estimates, for a boat ramp, associated piers and docks, boat storage areas, boat house, and ancillary utilities for kayak and canoe type boats along the Church Creek shoreline of Homeport Park, 11 Homeport Drive, Edgewater, MD. DPW and the Department of Recreation and Parks (DR&P) indicate that the park is currently utilized for “soft launch” for car top boats. It is the goal of the project to accommodate manual powered long-boats, such as “dragon” boats and incorporate ADA access to the water. Parking will need to be adjusted to allow for tow vehicles and trailers, including the development of overflow parking areas that are currently grass meadows. Boat storage areas will be level mulched pads that can accommodate storage racks built by clubs. The boat house will provide secure storage. There is a reforestation bank on-site that can be used as needed. Some community and stakeholder coordination has occurred, but more will be needed as the alternates are developed. Utilities will be limited to electric for site lighting, the boat house, and ancillary uses. There may need to be shoreline stabilization and bulkheads as needed for the facility uses. Permanent water, sanitary sewer, natural gas, or other utilities will not be provided at this site.”

While the Public Water Access Committee wants public water access for people, Arrasmith indicated the group is not in favor of a rowing facility or “community boathouse” at Homeport Farm Park.

She said a different property and one that’s not passive could be considered. She suggested Discovery Village in Shady Side.

Arrasmith said she helped Annapolis Rowing Club from 2016 to 2018 in the search for property for a rowing facility.

“I withdrew my personal support for this project in 2018,” said Arrasmith. “They (ARC) want what they want, but that doesn’t mean the county should pay for that – this won’t create or improve water access.”

And yet the county, or possibly just the County Executive, seems to pandering to the wishes of the few and not to the very real needs and rights of those that are disabled. Or even to making the county’s park and recreational facilities equitable and inclusive.

Who cares if parks aren’t accessible to all, let’s just put up a “community boathouse” that isn’t equitable or inclusive at a park intended for passive recreation, where not “all” can access the park?

I care.

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If this was really about water access, Homeport Farm Park already has that and anyone that can actually get into the park (it’s not accessible “for all”) can launch non-motorized watercraft from it.

Kayak rental is also already available at Homeport.

Poulsen said State Senator Sarah Elfreth and County Executive Steuart Pittman have supported the idea for a “community boathouse.”

An email from Senator Elfreth’s office reads, “Senator Elfreth has always been supportive of greater public water access and the concept of a community boathouse to help connect even more residents to the water. The latest proposal is still being worked through by Anne Arundel Recreation & Parks – they are doing their due diligence and working with the community to find the best location.” 

County Executive Pittman echoed the same thought.

“I support the efforts of Recreation & Parks to find a location for the county’s rowing community by looking at underutilized waterfront park properties in our inventory,” said Pittman. “Director Leys and her team are assessing our water access needs across the county. I remain committed to funding water access in our next budget, and to working on partnerships to meet even more water access needs moving forward.”

Again, a rowing facility for three rowing clubs has nothing to do with water access.

As Arrasmith indicated, “this won’t create or improve water access.”

Homeport Farm Park is on Church Creek, just off the South River and Jesse Iliff is the South, West and Rhode Riverkeeper.

“We are all for public access, as long as it’s truly public,” began Iliff. “When the kayak launch at Homeport Farm Park was installed, we did not oppose that. Right now, anyone can launch non-motorized vessels that wants to. The type of rowing facility like that proposed for Quiet Waters Park would be too large for Church Creek at Homeport Farm Park. It would disrupt navigation for upstream users, and it does not comport with public access to obstruct the current broad-spectrum water access for specialized vessels and equipment.”

As for Homeport Farm Park now being considered for this rowing facility, maybe the county is lacking in institutional memory so I’ll share some memories.

According to a 2005 Baltimore Sun article about the conveyance of Homeport Farm Park, “Recreation and park officials will conduct a community-based planning process once the project has been added to future county budgets,” said Jack T. Keene, the Department of Recreation and Parks’ chief of planning and construction. “The park will feature a nature study area and a launch for nonmotorized watercraft … Several houses and barns will be preserved, and the family will retain a Depression-era home built by Chip Davis’ grandfather.”

I have no knowledge of a specific nature study area at Homeport Farm Park and the barns, one of which was deemed historically important, are in a sad state of decay- due to Anne Arundel County’s complete disregard of the structures.

If the county can’t take care of what they’re legally required to, such as ADA compliance, or what they already said they would, including preserving a structure of historical importance, and now they want to put a rowing facility on the same property – that seems extremely shortsighted.

Homeport Farm Park was conveyed for use as a passive recreational park – that means forever and not changed at the whims of a County Executive or fancies of rowing clubs.

In a 2003 Baltimore Sun article, Matt Diehl, who was at that time a spokesperson for County Executive Janet Owens, “said yesterday that the county executive still supports the Homeport project because it will provide a “passive park,” which will be used by residents who like to walk nature trails and canoe.”

According to Law Insider, “Passive recreation means recreational activities that are commonly unorganized and noncompetitive, including, but not limited to, picnicking, bird watching, kite flying, bicycling, and walking.”

Annapolis Rowing Club is both organized and competitive, as are the other rowing organizations.

Also noteworthy is the 2016 study done for Annapolis Rowing Club and Annapolis Junior Rowing Association, which states, “To address the question of whether or not any of the potential sites can support a rowing club that achieves ARC and AJR’s success metrics, the advisory team conducted a tour of five sites, including Pier 7, Gingerville Yachting Center, Camp Woodlands, South River Farms Park, and Homeport Farm Park. Of those, all but Homeport Farm Park were considered potentially viable sites, and each of the four remaining sites were evaluated on water, land, location, and development potential.”

If the county is thinking about changing the use of Homeport Farm Park, it could result in distrust by anyone considering property deals with the county for use as passive parks.

We need more parks, not less – and more people willing to work with the county on land deals.

What we don’t need is a county that breaks the terms of agreements or even considers doing so.

Why would I combine the issue of ADA non-compliance at county parks and recreational facilities with those advocating for a boathouse?

Because the county has continued to say it can’t afford to make the necessary changes to make parks and recreational facilities accessible for all and in compliance with ADA and/or Program Open Space funding.

At the same time, the county continues to throw money towards those that are fond of using words like “need” and “inclusiveness” and who want a rowing facility for rowing clubs on property paid for by taxpayers.

How this idea has been given any attention, much less priority over real needs and rights, is incomprehensible.

It’s wonderful the county has an Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. What would be more wonderful is if this office could educate the County Executive, or even the public, on how a rowing facility for three rowing clubs would provide equity, diversity or inclusion.

As long as County Executive Pittman touts, “The Best Place – For All,” but refuses to pay attention (or money) to remedy the county’s ADA non-compliance issues and continues to pander to groups lacking in diversity, but with money or clout, it’s just not “the best place – for all.”

What’s next – stables for polo ponies?

Donna L. Cole is an award-winning multimedia and investigative reporter. She’s also a disabled veteran – she served in the U.S. Navy.

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