SNOW HILL – Citing liability issues, four Worcester County Commissioners rejected official involvement in a kayak and canoe launch to be built at the old Ocean City dump site on Ayres Creek.
“The actual concern was the $5,000 deductible per incident the county would be required to pay for defense costs if there is a suit to defend,” county spokesperson Kim Moses said after the commissioners rejected the proposal on Tuesday. “The insurance carrier is not going to defend the county from a claim that is less than the amount of the deductible, making it more cost effective for the county to simply pay small claims. The second part of their concern was the greater risk of small claims due to the nature of the site being a former dump.”
The new low-impact Ayres Creek Water Trail has been in the works for two years. The Maryland State Highway Administration approved a $49,000 grant for a gate, parking, a wooden walk to the water, and the launch, but that money has sat unspent and will soon be taken away if the project is not constructed. Ocean City has asked the county to lease the site for $1, and assume liability.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley said he had a problem with making the taxpayers of Worcester County liable for the site, though he supported to concept of the canoe launch. However, some of his colleagues disagreed.
“I didn’t see anything in that area that would cause any concerns with reference to liability,” said Commissioner Bud Church, who visited the site.
Ocean City leases the skate park and ball field property in the resort from Worcester County for $1 a year, and has taken on the liability for that site, which could be more concerning than the proposed kayak launch.
“I have a lot more concern about the liability in Ocean City with the skateboard park and the ball field with people sliding into home,” said Church.
Commissioner Jim Purnell said he has concerns over the environmental state of Ayres Creek because of the landfill.
“That creek today is not what it was years ago, nowhere near that,” said Purnell.
Dr. Roman Jesien, science coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP), told the Commissioners that MDE signed off on the capping of the landfill, and the removal of all contaminants. Monitoring wells have also shown no problems.
“I think we have to go with what the state regulators are saying about that site,” said Jesien.
One official at DNR says he has not heard of a single lawsuit over a boat launch in his 16 years with the agency, said Jesien.
Users would be kept in the boat launch area and not permitted to access the other areas of the landfill site. Ocean City has said it would clean up any areas where the landfill cap is not working well.
“It’ll provide a boon to the area in terms of additional non-consumptive uses,” said Jesien. “There’s just not a lot of places in the Ocean City area where people can come in and have access to a place like this.”
The county should not take on open-ended liability for property owned by Ocean City, Commissioner Judy Boggs said.
County attorney Sonny Bloxom confirmed that Ocean City would still be responsible for the former landfill if the county leased the kayak launch site.
If the liability is so low, Commissioner Bobby Cowger wondered, why was Ocean City not willing to take it on?
“There’s something hidden there that someone’s not telling us,” he said.
If anyone other than the Maryland Coastal Bays Program was pushing for this kayak launch, said Cowger, MCBP would be all over the commissioners for allowing a project in wetlands.
“Just because it’s something that the Coastal Bays wants you’re willing to turn your back on environmental issues,” Cowger said to Jesien.
The landfill is an environmentally sensitive area full of toxic materials, Cowger said after the meeting.
“It has no business being used at all until it’s cleaned up,” he said.
The Coastal Bays program complains about developers and the county commissioners in the local press all the time, said Cowger.
“I’m tired of getting blasted in the papers,” said Cowger.
In an interview after the meeting, Cowger said, “If it were a developer or someone else they’d be screaming, ‘you can’t go in there.’”
That is a double standard, Cowger felt.
“That’s not right and I’m not going to stand for it,” he said. “It needs to be a level playing field. They don’t need to be saying, it’s okay for us and nobody else.”
Church said while he agreed with Cowger about being criticized, he was not willing to vote down the proposal.
“I’m going to put myself above that,” said Church. “I’m not going to close my mind to a project I think it worthwhile.”
Commissioners Boggs, Cowger, Purnell, and Shockley voted against taking on the liability for the kayak launch.