Unrest on the waterfront at Deep Creek Lake

March 30, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

McHENRY -- Come this time each spring, Bill Sisler and other boaters in this tourist-dependent Garrett County community are getting ready to put their floating docks and rental boats into the still-cold waters of Deep Creek Lake.

But a running dispute between a Pennsylvania electric company, the state and property owners over proposed usage fees and future recreational access to Deep Creek Lake has resulted in the Maryland Board of Public Works not signing a recent agreement, possibly affecting the summer season.

Lake business owners are upset because their fees would at least triple under the proposed schedule.

"This is a critical time," said Mr. Sisler, one of the owners of Bill's Marine Service, the largest marina on the 3,900-acre lake in Garrett County. "We're less than two weeks away from the start of the season. I'm sure everybody would like to see this come to an end."

Property owners want the state Department of Natural Resources to ensure future recreational access in a five-year lake management agreement with the Pennsylvania Electric Co. The utility uses Deep Creek Lake as a water source for a nearby hydroelectric plant on the Youghiogheny River.

Under former federal energy licensing requirements, Penelec was required to open the man-made lake to public recreation. Federal oversight expired last year, and Maryland has no state law mandating such use. Penelec, however, has allowed public recreation on the lake since its creation in the 1920s.

Ed King, past president of the Deep Creek Lake Property Owners Association Inc., said residents want DNR to tie the management lease to state permits for water appropriation. Although Penelec owns the lake bottom and a buffer strip surrounding the lake, the state owns and permits water use.

DNR officials said there is no connection between the management lease and the water-resources permits.

"Property owners are concerned that millions of dollars of investments that we and the commercial sector have made on the lake should be protected by the state," Mr. King said. "Come the middle of April, people are going to be extremely anxious about getting docks in the water.

"Because we stopped the lease signing, we'll get some of the blame for that," he added. "In the long term, what we are trying to protect is something that is much more important than the immediacy of putting docks in the water." Because Deep Creek typically freezes during the winter, most docks in the huge lake are mounted on some sort of flotation gear that can be removed during the coldest months.

The Board of Public Works tentatively approved the lease in mid-December. Under the terms of the lease, DNR would be paid $340,000 each of the five years to manage the lake. DNR has managed the lake for Penelec since 1981.

Also at issue for property owners and businesses is Penelec's proposed increase in permit fees for docks and boats and other lake-related uses.

For some businessmen, such as Bob Browning of Deep Creek Outfitters, permit fees would increase many fold.

Mr. Browning said he paid about $800 annually for 33 boat slips and about 50 rental boats the past several years. Under Penelec's proposed increases, he said, his yearly costs would approach $10,000.

"Eight hundred dollars has been a real bargain," Mr. Browning said. "No one has argued that the fees shouldn't go up, but let's not get carried away. We're going to end up paying more -- it's just a matter of how much."

Penelec, for example, has proposed raising annual permits for commercial boat slips to $175 from $25, residential boat slips to $150 from $50, and charging $150 for each motorized rental boat -- a fee not assessed previously.

Penelec's new fees are needed to cover DNR's cost in managing the lake and for the company's other expenses, such as shoreline-erosion prevention.

Business and property owners have countered with their own fee proposal -- $100 per slip for both residential and commercial users. They also have asked DNR to require boaters to buy $25 stickers to use the lake.

Mr. Sisler said the counter proposal would distribute the cost more evenly among business and property owners and other lake users. Just 31 businesses and some 3,000 property owners are on the lake.

"We're trying to work out a proposal that will spread the costs among the most number of people," Mr. Sisler said. "We recognize that Penelec should have income from the lake and that DNR should be the manager. Our problem is the large amount of fees that would be required to carry that."

Penelec is reviewing the counter-proposal and is expected to release revised fees after a lease agreement is finalized, a Penelec spokesman said. The Board of Public Works has asked DNR to review residents' concerns.

Some residents have questioned Penelec's payments to DNR to manage the lake. But DNR officials say the money is needed to cover administrative duties and personnel. Previously, the state was paid about $100,000 for lake management, and the rest of its $270,000 annual budget came from permit fees and Penelec, said Paul Durham, manager of the Deep Creek Lake Natural Resources Management Area.

The state, he said, will continue to spend about $500,000 a year to provide Natural Resources Police, water resource and fish management and other services.

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