Kayak Launch Project Caught in Political Tug-of-War

OCEAN CITY- What seemed like a simple yes or no question, has perhaps turned into a bit of a political stalemate.

Dr. Roman Jesien of Maryland Coastal Bays says he feels like he’s stuck in between two political siblings that can’t play nice in the proverbial sandbox together; and all he wants to do is install a kayak launch.

Jessien and his colleagues at Maryland Coastal Bays Program have been in front of the Ocean City Mayor and Council on two occasions to gain support and the blessing to use the town’s land (the old Ocean City Dump near Ayres Creek) for a kayak boat launch that would give visitors and residents access to miles of waterways starting at Ayres Creek and winding through Assateague State Park and potentially ending at the West Ocean City harbor.

The town of Ocean City has informed Maryland Coastal Bays that while it is in favor of allowing the organization to lease the town’s land for a proposed $1 a year for the next 20 years, it is not in favor of assuming any additional liability insurance on the property.

“There’s a real question about liability here, because at this point the land is posted as ‘no trespassing,’ but if we all of a sudden allow people to go out there and someone gets hurt and sues us, we are liable,” said City Manager Dennis Dare. “I think the county ought to supervise this venture, Maryland Coastal Bays operate it, and we simply lease out the land to them.”

Unfortunately, for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, and perhaps for the town of Ocean City, the Worcester County Commissioners voted 4-3 to not get involved with the project in any way, essentially passing the buck back to the town, and leaving the project in limbo.

“At this point, I’m not sure where we stand”, said Jesien, “The longer we wait to use this grant money, the higher the probability is that the State Highway Administration is going to take it away and use it for something else.”

The aforementioned grant in this case, is a $49,000 SHA grant that Maryland Coastal Bays Program hoped to use to improve the property and build the boat launch, and a wooden walkway or boardwalk leading up to the launch.  In addition, Jesien said that a parking lot would be installed, and a gate to block the property at night.

The Ocean City dump has sat vacant for years, as the town invested a substantial amount of money in clearing the land of toxic materials, before it was cleared by the Maryland Department of the Environment in 2007.  Previously, the site was used as a municipal rubble dump from 1954-1980 and a police shooting range from 1980-1989. 

Jesien says he understands the town’s concerns over liability insurance, but notes that making this project happen is being made much more difficult by political posturing.

“This decision from the County Commissioners seems to be blatantly out of spite, and I don’t understand why they are playing these political games the way they are”, said Jesien, “If the town and the county could just play nice in the sandbox together, we could add value to this property and give the people of this area an added amenity.”

Mayor Rick Meehan says that he was assured by one county commissioner who voted in favor of the venture that the conversation is “going to be brought up again” at the county level, but noted that the liability insurance issue is real, and the hold up is probably not as political as perhaps Jesien is advocating.

“I think that Dr. Jesien is probably looking at this from the perspective of his organization, and not looking at all of the governmental obligations that need to be taken into account”, said Meehan, “I had hoped that the Maryland Coastal Bays, the town and the county could all work together on this project, because it’s a good and viable project, but if this is the county’s decision, then we are going to have to find another way and overcome these obstacles.”

Jesien noted that liability insurance for this project could be as little as $500, and has held firm on the idea that his organization should not have to front that money.

“That’s not what we do, and it’s not what has been done at other launches like this around the country”, said Jesien. “We don’t have a stake in the property, and we aren’t trying to make a profit on this venture either, so why should we have to assume liability?”

Jesien said that his next move is to go back to the Ocean City Mayor and Council as he simultaneously tells the SHA to hold off on spending the grant money elsewhere.

Meehan, on the other hand, sounded much more optimistic that the project would still become a reality, noting that the town would continue to try to work with Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

“I don’t think this is insurmountable”, said Meehan, “If neither political entity wants to take sole responsibility, then we need to sit down with the Maryland Coastal Bays and figure this thing out because it is a good project for this community.”