SNOW HILL – Duck boat tours will not be leaving from the West Ocean City boat ramp, the Worcester County Commissioners decided this week, after the state made clear that letting a commercial operation use the public boat ramp would endanger hundreds of thousands in federal funds.
That means Paradise Watersports owners Tyler and Logan Barnes’ duck tour venture might be out of luck.
“That’s the only ramp we can use for the duck boat in the entire area,” said Logan Barnes in an interview after the decision.
The duck boat draws five feet of water, and private ramps only offer about three. The harbor ramp is the only water access in the area to offer enough depth to launch the duck boat. Duck boats only take a few minutes to launch, much less than a traditional boat, he said.
Now the entire business venture is in jeopardy.
“It’s a bummer,” Barnes said.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said that it could not support a pending Federal Sport Fish Restoration Program grant worth $600,000 if the county permitted a commercial business to use the public boat ramp at the commercial harbor.
“The intended purpose of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sport Fish Restoration Program funding for boating access is to provide and enhance sport fishing and recreational boating opportunities,” begins the DNR letter by Director of Boating Service Robert Gaudette.
DNR also expressed concern over potential conflicts between the tour vehicles and recreational boaters, and damage to the ramp from the 19,000-pound amphibious vehicle.
The harbor boat ramp is one of the most used public boat ramps in Maryland and the most popular in the Ocean City area, according to DNR, and boaters can wait a long time to enter or exit the water, which could cause conflicts between the scheduled tour and boaters.
The state agency sometimes permits commercial use of a state facility, but only if the commercial use will not interfere with the intended use of the facility.
“It’s going to wait in line just like everybody else does,” said Barnes. “It takes five seconds to dump it in the water.”
As for wear and tear on the ramps, Barnes said he would sign a waiver accepting liability for any damage and would be willing to pay rent to use the boat ramp.
The state also provides an ongoing grant of $200,000 for that boat ramp.
Gaudette writes, “In addition, the department would also be reluctant to provide future state funding at this facility given the conflicts that duck boats would pose to the majority of boaters using this ramp.”
The Barnes brothers proposed to add four daily 75-minute duck tours to their stable of activities, touring the bays behind south Ocean City and Assateague Island. Passengers would board a 49-person vehicle at the Hooper’s Crab House parking lot, near their operation at Hooper’s marina, and drive the vehicles to the West Ocean City boat ramp at the harbor to launch.
Tours would cover highlights of local history and natural resources, such as the 1933 storm, the old railroad bridge and the Assateague ponies.
The brothers asked the county for permission to use the boat ramp for their operation despite the restriction on commercial use, saying in their letter that they do not want to risk their investment by using the ramp without permission and need the okay from the county or state.
The commissioners came to a swift, unanimous decision to deny the brothers’ request.
“It’s very important we keep the harbor sacrosanct,” said County Commission President Louise Gulyas, who added that the state might withdraw services such as harbor dredging if the county allowed a local business to violate the state’s no commercial use rule.
The county cannot jeopardize $600,000 in grant funds, said Commissioner Bobby Cowger.
Commissioner Judy Boggs pointed out the harbor boat ramp is popular and the duck tours would not be able to keep to a schedule if using that water access.
Gulyas suggested the brothers’ launch from their current location at Hooper’s Crab House.
“There’s no ramp there,” Tustin said.
Amphibious vehicles do not need a ramp to enter or exit the water, said county attorney Sonny Bloxom.
“We could launch off a beach but there isn’t any beach around here to use,” said Barnes, except on Assateague Island, and duck boats are not permitted in the ocean. “It’s not able to handle any waves. It’s got a three-foot wave restriction. I have to use a ramp pretty much.”
Duck boats cannot launch from a bay shore either, he said.
Barnes plans to approach the state and federal government, seeking permission from a higher authority. It has been difficult to get a direct answer. Barnes has spoken to over 100 people, he said.
“It isn’t something I want to give up as yet, not ‘til I get a hard no from somebody high above,” Barnes said. “Every other state they run these things. All the ones in Florida use federally funded boat ramps.”
Barnes doubts, even if he is successful in gaining access to the harbor boat ramp, that the duck boat tour will be running by the next tourist season.
“I’d like to keep going with this,” said Barnes. “I’m not going to give up.”