The clanging of boats has Rock Hall astir

February 03, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

ROCK HALL — C ROCK HALL -- Sometimes the winds of change blowing through this little town on the Chesapeake Bay are so loud that people can't sleep at night.

A debate over noise control in Rock Hall has been going on as the mayor and four council members prepared to discuss tonight whether sailors should be legally responsible for the clanging sounds made by sheets and halyards -- the cables used to regulate the height and angle of sails -- as they strike the aluminum masts of their docked boats.

At issue is an unusual amendment to the town's noise ordinance that would require boat owners to keep their moored vessels quiet. Should the measure pass, owners of noisy boats could be charged up to $100 for a first offense. For a second offense, they could be fined $200.

The proposal, which was made Jan. 6 by the Town Council, was greeted at first with amusement and disbelief in some circles.

"There was a general snickering in the boating community," said Town Manager J. Michael Downes.

Other towns along the Chesapeake have ordinances prohibiting loud noise, but no law goes as far as would the measure proposed for Rock Hall -- perhaps none in the nation.

Across the bay, in Annapolis, which bills itself as the sailing capital of the East Coast, "Any politician who tried to make halyard noise illegal would be sailed out of town on a boom," said City Attorney Paul Goetzke. From a national perspective, Harry Munns, executive vice president of the California-based American Sailing Association, said sailboat noise is a genuine issue, "but I don't know that there's anyplace it's been legislated."

"It's like picking up after your dog," Mr. Munns added.

"It's a matter of courtesy."

It's certainly no laughing matter to R. Benson DuVall, a Rock Hall councilman whose property on Bayside Avenue looks out over the harbor where hundreds of sailboats are tied up in the summer.

"That noise has kept me awake many a night," he said. "Sometimes it sounds like a lot of ball-peen hammers hitting metal."

The proposed amendment is getting a lot of attention in town these days, although even Mr. DuVall, one of its most ardent supporters, conceded that sailboat noise is only part of a larger debate over the future of Rock Hall.

"This amendment is absolutely ridiculous, and it's just another slap at marinas," said Thelma "Lori" Campbell, a council member and part-owner of the 140-slip North Point Marina.

Mrs. Campbell, a Rock Hall native serving her first term on the council, said a small group of retired and politically powerful town residents resents the way marina owners have brought change to Rock Hall.

B. Douglas Megargee, manager of Gratitude Marina and Osprey Point Marina, said the proposed noise amendment is an example of the Town Council's "kangaroo politics."

"It's a thorn in my side. Marinas are important to this town, and [the council] seems to want to go out of its way to make it tough on us because our people are new to the area."

Maybe and maybe not, said Mr. DuVall, a retired businessman and boat builder. "We have had a conflict that's been going on since the early 1980s between the recreational interests and the other interests in town," he said. "It's still a watermen's community. They haven't all died yet, and I stand firm on those local interests."

This Kent County town of about 1,600 full-time residents, long a center of commercial seafood activity, has undergone a transformation in the last decade. As the seafood industry declined, Rock Hall became a big Eastern Shore draw for recreational boaters.

On any summer weekend, sailors flood into town, doubling the population and filling the nearly 1,200 boat slips in and around town.

Marina owners say the seasonal boat traffic means the economic salvation of Rock Hall. The influx of sailors has been accompanied by a proliferation of restaurants, gift shops and art galleries.

At the K Foods supermarket at Main Street and Rock Hall Avenue, owner Art Kendall said boaters are largely responsible for a jump in his business of about one-third during warm weather months.

But whenever breezes move across the moored sailboats, the sound of clanging halyards and sheets fills the air around the congested waterfront.

"I can see how the noise would bother some people, all this ping, ping, ping," said Rock Hall Police Chief Elbert F. Williams Jr. "But, for someone else, it's like a chime."

Jonathan Jones, manager of Haven Harbour Marina, said the proposed noise ordinance -- as well as a rumored slip tax on marinas -- could send a message to boaters that they are not welcome. That, he said, could put some tourism-dependent businesses in dry dock.

"Let's face it, the economy is the marinas," he said.

Jack Fooks, a Pittsburgh resident who sails his 44-foot Island Packet out of Rock Hall every summer, laughed when he was told of the proposed regulation. "Anybody who has ever been sailing would be amused by this," he said. "I've never heard anything like it." Mr. Fooks said that if the amendment becomes law, he might not return to Rock Hall.

"If that's the kind of attitude the town fathers have toward sailors, I'm out of there," he said.

Rock Hall Mayor Rosalie Kuechler, who could be the swing vote in the amendment decision, said she is familiar with both sides of the debate. "I've had guests spend the night, and they get up in the morning and ask, 'What in the world was that noise?' " she said. "When you live with it, you get used to it."

She would not say how she will vote on the noise amendment.

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