November 14, 2022

Chesapeake National Recreation Area one step closer as Maryland legislators announce they’ve drafted legislation

A vision for the Chesapeake Bay area to have a National Park Service designation is one step closer to reality Monday, as Maryland congressional leaders announced they have drafted legislation for the proposal.

The Chesapeake National Recreation Area, as it would be known, could unify a number of existing parks and destinations around the nation’s largest estuary under a common umbrella, organizers say.

The legislation establishing the area will be open for public comment for 90 days, before it is introduced in Congress, said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who has championed the effort alongside U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes. The two Democrats convened a working group to discuss the idea last March.

The recreation area would be similar to others in the United States, including San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which covers a number of attractions in that area, from Alcatraz Island to Muir Woods National Monument.

“It will unlock more opportunities and more federal resources for the Chesapeake Bay area,” Van Hollen said Monday during a news conference in Annapolis. “The National Park Service will have an even bigger role here. And that will help tell our story to America.”

Under the draft legislation, the first four sites that would become part of the recreation area are: The Capt. William H. Burtis House, which is next to the Annapolis City Dock, the Whitehall manor in Annapolis, the Thomas Shoal Point Lighthouse in the bay near the mouth of the South River, and the North Beach of Fort Monroe in Virginia.


The legislation also would establish an advisory committee that could suggest additional sites for the recreation area, lawmakers said.

“There is opportunity for growth,” Van Hollen said. “The National Park Service, we will empower them through this legislation to purchase additional sites to be part of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area.”

Some of the sites could be purchased by the National Park Service if owners agree, while others may receive management assistance from the federal agency, the lawmakers said.

The Burtis House, where the lawmakers held their news conference Monday, was obtained by the City of Annapolis in 2020. It was built in the 1880s by the Burtis family, and named for the waterman who ran a charter boat service there for bay cruises.

It was eventually purchased by the state and became the National Sailing Hall of Fame, but it had been vacant since 2019. The city recently received more than $300,000 in grant funding from The National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Office and Preservation Maryland to help renovate the property and raise its foundation to protect it from floodwaters.

The house will play a key role in connecting the various other sites included in the recreation area, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley said.

“Burtis House can be a departure point for tours to the Thomas Point Lighthouse, to Elktonia Carrs Beach or other locations in this beautiful watershed,” Buckley said.

Whitehall, a 135-acre property along Meredith and Whitehall creeks in Annapolis, includes a historic manor, built in 1764 by Horatio Sharpe, a provincial governor of Maryland for the British, and designed by the same architect behind Maryland’s State House.

It mostly hosts weddings and other events now, but the family that owns the property has been looking to open its waterfront trails and sprawling grounds to the public, said Charlie Scarlett, president of the Brandywine Foundation, which manages the property. Scarlett’s father purchased the property in 1946.

“We’re a small volunteer board of family members, and we’re doing the best we can, and we’re kind of at the end of our bandwidth,” he said. “To manage an open-to-the-public situation — we can’t do that.”

It’s still under discussion whether the family will retain ownership of Whitehall or it will go to the National Park Service, Scarlett said, but the agency’s involvement will help increase public access to the property, which is really only open for tours by request at the moment.

“We’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, and all of the sudden, we get to open on Broadway,” Scarlett said.

The family has applied to add Whitehall, which is a National Historic Landmark, to the Chesapeake Gateways Network, Scarlett said.

That network is an existing list of key Chesapeake Bay sites run by the National Park Service. The idea is for that network to be “folded in” to the new recreation area, Van Hollen said Monday.

“What Gateways has done is help identify sites of significance, but they’re not part of a national park or a national recreation area,” Sarbanes said.

The new legislation also would ensure the Gateways program receives permanent authorization from the federal government, with $6 million a year attached, the lawmakers said.

A number of environmental groups and watermen’s groups cheered the announcement Monday.

The passage of the legislation would allow officials to produce “a string of pearls” of sites honoring Black peoples’ contributions to the Bay region, said Vince Leggett, founder and president of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, a nonprofit focused on documenting the history of the region’s Black residents and watermen.

“So often, minorities, African Americans and other underserved people look at this Chesapeake Bay as a playground for the rich, and many times they feel alienated from this body of water,” Leggett said. “Collectively, we can make a difference.”

Officials spoke Monday about using the resources of the National Park Service to increase public access to the estuary, as much of its shoreline is currently privately owned.

The idea to establish a national recreation area for the bay has been discussed for decades, popularized by an op-ed in the Capital Gazette and work by Anne Arundel County Executive Jim Lighthizer, and later followed in the 1990s by the advocacy efforts of U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

“People have had this idea for over 30 years and it’s really been a part of the fabric to protect and restore the bay, and now it’s coming to fruition,” said Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.


By:  Christine Condon
Source: The Baltimore Sun