Charter vessel issue with City Dock space arises on new front

Some questions raised over possible favoritism in harbor placement

July 08, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Just when Annapolis officials thought they had quelled the storm over a charter vessel that sought a long-term slip at the City Dock, new clouds are looming.

This time, the tempest is not over longtime watermen losing their moorings. It's over the notion that an upstart charter company will get prime-time harbor placement that might have been denied to others.

"We have for years had people with charter vessels asking to rent slips from the city, and for years they've been turned down," said Alderman Louise Hammond. "We were curious why the Half Shell was given a lease, when others were denied that opportunity."

At a meeting last week, Hammond and other members of the Economic Matters Committee tabled their vote on a lease for the Half Shell, a 54-foot charter boat that once dredged the Bay for oysters and crabs. The reason: They feared the city was playing favorites with its waterfront space.

Alderman Sheila M. Tolliver said the committee was told that the city receives as many as 150 requests a year for space at the City Dock. And one charter owner, who told aldermen that she requested and was denied a city slip in February, explained why interest in the location is so keen.

"It would be like having a charter in [Baltimore's] Inner Harbor," Ellen Kay said in an interview yesterday. "People are there, walking around, and you can get customers who walk right up and buy tickets. If you're located in the backwoods nobody's going to see you."

The city's decision to lease to the Half Shell was made by Mayor Dean L. Johnson. He said he was not aware of Kay's interest in a City Dock slip, or of interest from any other charter outfit.

"We didn't deny it to anyone else because no one else asked," he said. "If you can produce a denial from us, I'll eat it."

Johnson said this latest concern about the Half Shell lease is hard to fathom.

Residents complained recently that the charter operation would displace the City Dock's last two commercial crabbing boats, spoiling the scant evidence of a once-thriving commercial landing.

In response, Johnson sent the Half Shell on a 90-foot journey across the harbor, preserving the crabbers' slips. The solution, he thought, would smooth the political waters. But it hasn't.

Not only did the aldermen raise questions about the absence of advertising for the available space, they also questioned the lease amount, which is pending their approval.

The lease price of $6,000 a year is less than the rate for similar space in nearby Annapolis City Marina. A slip for a 54-foot vessel there would run about $7,300, Kay said. And the city would earn far more from daily lease deals given out to so-called transient boats that come in and out of the harbor to visit.

The mayor said the city based its rate for the Half Shell on those charged to other vessels nearby.

What confounds him, he said, is the sudden shift in concerns: First came the call to preserve historical crabbing boats -- which paid only $600 in annual slip fees. Now critics blame him for not doing enough to maximize the profits.

"How do I respond?" he asked. "Sometimes you just can't please people."

Despite his frustration with this new line of concern, Johnson agreed with one point the aldermen made: that a formal plan for leasing on the Annapolis waterfront would ultimately bring tranquillity. He said a study for just such a plan was funded in the city's budget, which went into effect last week.

Bill O'Gara, the owner of the Half Shell, said he is ducking out of this fight.

The 1928 vessel is at the City Dock, in an agreement with the city that allows it to operate while the lease is being considered.

"People need to realize I worked extremely hard to get this lease," O'Gara said. "I came in every day for six months to follow through on my request. Maybe instead of being upset with me, or with the city, [the other charter owners] should be upset with themselves for not being as persistent."

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