Water taxi companies do battle over docks City restricts one firm to 1 Inner Harbor stop

February 25, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Out along the scenic reaches of the Inner Harbor, an epic water battle is under way.

And among the casualties could be one of Baltimore's familiar water taxis.

With little fanfare, the city has restricted Silver Clipper Inc., which operates as Harbor Shuttle, from stopping at six docks in the Inner Harbor. That leaves the company, one of Baltimore's two water taxi services, with only one stop in the popular tourist area -- the Harborplace Amphitheatre, between the Pratt and Light streets pavilions.

"If the contract is allowed to stand, I will go out of business," said Ron Morgan, 47, president of Silver Clipper. He has refused to sign the contract drawn up by city officials last month and Wednesday filed a $2 million lawsuit against the city.

Morgan claims cronyism led to the restrictions on his company.

Harbor Shuttle's sole competitor, Ed Kane, who runs the Water Taxi, is a longtime friend of Richard E. Hurley Jr., the former director of construction at Baltimore Development Corp. Hurley was in charge of the city's harbor landings for several years, until October. The two men met in 1972 and have been friends since, Kane said. Hurley was the best man at Kane's wedding two years ago.

Morgan said Hurley told him last year that the amphitheater was the only landing Harbor Shuttle could use in the harbor because of restrictions placed on Silver Clipper in its original contract with the city in 1990. Baltimore Development records show Hurley sent Morgan a letter, dated April 10, restricting Harbor Shuttle from landing at other city-owned docks in the Inner Harbor.

A coincidence? Morgan doesn't think so.

But Hurley and Kane deny allegations that their personal relationship has affected business dealings in the harbor.

"I never did anything illegal or unethical," Hurley said Friday. "I went strictly by the book." He retired from Baltimore Development last month.

"Mr. Morgan's contract with the city gives him permission to use xTC 12 feet of public wharf at the amphitheater," Hurley said. "His use of other landings is in violation of that agreement."

Officials at the city Department of Public Works, which has been in charge of the city's harbor landings for four months, would not comment because of the lawsuit. City Solicitor Otho M. Thompson also declined to comment.

Operating limited service

As he waits for a Baltimore circuit judge to hear his lawsuit against the city, Morgan continues to operate a commuter shuttle service to the amphitheater from Tindeco Wharf in Canton and a Fells Point dock off Ann Street. He has stopped landing at other docks in the Inner Harbor -- including the Maryland Science Center, a public wharf that is open to any boater who wants to land along the harbor's west wall.

Morgan said the city has banned him from docking at the science center because of a lawsuit threatened by Kane, owner of Harbor Boating Inc., who claims his contract with the city gives him exclusive docking rights at several landings in the Inner Harbor. Kane uses eight city-owned landings in the Inner Harbor.

"The city is restricting me from landing anywhere near Kane's landings," said Morgan. Many of Morgan's landings, including those at Rusty Scupper and the aquarium, are within 200 feet of Kane's. "They say that originally, I was the Outer Harbor shuttle and Harbor Boating was the Inner Harbor shuttle service.

"But my original contract with the city [in 1990] states only that my business cannot affect Kane's water taxi service. It doesn't specifically deny me access to other harbor landings."

Morgan said Harbor Shuttle's pontoon boats have never docked at any of Kane's landings but have landed at nearby city-owned locations -- including docks at the Rusty Scupper and the aquarium -- with permission from marina operators. The operators lease property from the city.

"I expanded my business as private property [managers] asked for my services," said Morgan, who claims he made arrangements with the marina operators to land on the property that the dock masters lease from the city. Those agreements date to 1990 and were approved by the city, he said.

"That is a lie," Hurley said. "Mr. Morgan entered into a contractual agreement to land at one landing in the harbor, and one landing only. The city has never granted Mr. Morgan access to any other harbor landings. In fact, Mr. Morgan has been told repeatedly -- by the marine police, the dock masters and BDC -- that he cannot land at those sites."

City gives ultimatum

Morgan has been given an ultimatum, city records show. If he does not sign the new city agreement, his rights to land at the amphitheater will be terminated.

The latest restrictions illustrate the long-standing problems his company has had in its dealings with the city, Morgan said.

He contends that during the 1980s he repeatedly asked the city for landing rights in the Inner Harbor. Those requests -- which were addressed to Hurley -- were never answered, Morgan said.

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