Culture clash by the water

Watermen say neighbors' complaints cause hardship

November 28, 1999|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

His "Live Crabs" sign no longer hangs at the end of the road. A wooden fence encloses his crab box and gear. And sales have fallen so low that Benjamin Dennis is finding it more and more difficult to be a waterman in Anne Arundel County.

The downturn began early last year, Dennis said, when the county notified him that he could no longer sell crabs or store gear outside his Shady Side home. He was told that a neighbor had complained that the stack of crab pots in his yard was a blight in the community.

"I had done good all my life," said the 65-year-old Dennis, a waterman since he was 14. "After they shut me down, I've had to sell here, there, wherever I could."

Local watermen say Dennis is another victim of a clash of cultures in South County. As more white-collar professionals move into the area, the watermen are being forced out.

Newcomers don't want to see crab pots and aging gear in their neighborhood. They don't want to be awakened in the early hours of the morning by boat engines as watermen prepare for a day's work. And they don't want their street to be a marketplace.

So they've complained to the county, said Bill Scerbo, vice president of the Anne Arundel County Watermen's Association.

About five years ago, Scerbo said, talk circulated among watermen that residents were threatening complaints to the county if they didn't clean up. By selling their wares and storing gear outside their homes -- something they have done all their lives -- the watermen could be fined by the county for zoning violations.

"People like to see workboats in the marina and buy our crabs," Scerbo said. "But, as soon as someone has to live next to one or down the street from one, they start to complain."

The county says there has not been a crackdown on watermen, but talk to the few watermen with time to chat, or to lifelong South County residents, and they tell a different story. Some watermen have moved away, some have moved on to commercial property, and many, like Dennis, have endured -- barely.

A few supporters are trying to carve a place for watermen in the changing South County.

The community's small area planning committee -- one of 16 around Anne Arundel charged by County Executive Janet S. Owens with developing local land-use and development plans -- may propose a zoning change to allow watermen to operate on their residential property. Scerbo, a committee member, said it's one way to protect the remaining watermen.

The problems for Dennis date to 1997, when South County zoning inspector David B. Edwards received an anonymous complaint about old furniture, boats and crab pots on the property. As county policy, Edwards investigated the complaint.

"Nothing was neat and tidy," Edwards said. "Things were scattered all over the place."

On April 28 last year, Edwards sent Dennis a notice informing the waterman that he was committing code violations by not storing his equipment in an orderly manner and by selling crabs and other seafood in his yard. If he continued to do so, he could face civil and criminal penalties.

Edwards said he gave Dennis time to comply and worked with him to find alternatives to stay in business. He suggested applying for a special zoning classification, or relocating his operation.

"This is his livelihood," Edwards said. "I wanted to work with him."

Dennis, who has a commercial license but can't sell from his modest one-story home in the 1200 block of West River Road, decided to stay put and not bother with applying for the special zoning.

To comply with Edwards' orders, Dennis built a wooden fence around his crab box and equipment. He took down the sign and stored it -- out of sight -- behind his fence.

Before, when he sold from his house, Dennis said, he made about $7,000 to $8,000 each crab season, from April to November. "It was enough to carry me through the whole year."

Back then, he attracted customers from all over the state. "Now, I only sell to friends and past customers, who call," he said.

With the decline in sales, Dennis said he relies more on his $490-a-month Social Security check to get him and his wife, Gloria, through the year.

Bob Evans, president of the Anne Arundel County Watermen's Association, a group of about 125 members, said Dennis' financial struggle is not an isolated case.

"Almost everyone who is a waterman has run into those problems," he said. "It began when people started moving in from the city."

Evans recalls the story of a waterman who lived across the street from him. The man had 50 crab pots delivered to his house one day, and was promptly told by a neighbor to remove them.

"They weren't in his yard more than 12 hours before he had to put them away," Evans said.

To avoid similar problems, Evans moved onto commercial property in Shady Side in 1993. His annual property tax has almost doubled to $1,400, but Evans said he needed a place to keep his equipment, which includes 650 crab pots, several nets and four workboats.

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